Like Ripken, Gwynn finds age, ailments a challenge



March 18, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Talk about a parallel universe. While future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken attempts to hold back the hands of time in Florida, San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn tries to do the same in Arizona.

Gwynn is inching his way back toward the Padres' starting lineup, taking it one day at a time on the gimpy left knee that nearly drove him to retirement last season.

Manager Bruce Bochy keeps a calendar in his office to make sure Gwynn's comeback stays on schedule. The training staff has devised a plan aimed at keeping him off his feet as much as possible. It might be the only hope for him to squeeze one more season into his impressive career.

"I just follow directions," Gwynn said. "They tell me what to do and where to go. Next week, I get to play in back-to-back games."

Even at 40, it's not easy to take it slow. Gwynn wants to play every day. That's how he got ready all those years he was establishing himself as one of the greatest pure hitters in baseball history. Now, the 2001 season may depend on his patience.

"It's completely out of whack," Gwynn said the other day. "But it makes it interesting. I like getting at-bats every day. I try to get some rhythm, some pace, that way. But right now, I'm not. Right now, I'm playing every other day.

"Deep down, you know it's a good thing. The important part is April through October. But it goes against everything I've done for 19 years. You know this is the best thing to do, but it still stinks."

Gwynn and Ripken have a lot in common, including their philosophies on this season possibly being the end of the road. Both accept the likelihood, but hope to resist a little longer.

"I'm not looking at it like it is [my last season]," Gwynn said. "I'm approaching it like I want to keep playing. But I'm realistic, too. I thought about it during the winter. Now that I'm here and having fun, I don't know.

"I've heard people say, `Make them rip the jersey off your back.' I tend to stick with that. ... You can't play forever. When the time comes, you have to deal with it rationally. The last thing you want to do is go out and embarrass yourself."

Dept. of hyperbole

Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner has been impressed with the performance of young starter Jeff Weaver - so much so that he got a little carried away when someone asked about the potential of the 24-year-old right-hander.

"The sky is the limit for him," Garner said after Weaver made his third strong exhibition appearance.

How high is high?

"Detroit has had a 30-game winner before," Garner said. "You never know, maybe one of these days if all his cards fall right, he'll do something outstanding like that."

Maybe, but it might be prudent to note that Weaver was 11-15 last year with a 4.32 ERA. That's certainly respectable for an up-and-coming pitcher, but hardly reason to clear space at Cooperstown.

Better late than most anybody

Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez took his sweet time getting to the mound for his first exhibition appearance, then wasted no time showing that he is ready to pick up right where he left off from back-to-back Cy Young seasons.

He pitched four no-hit innings against the Montreal Expos last week, a characteristically dominating performance that featured seven strikeouts and just one walk. Martinez was scheduled to make his second spring start yesterday and is on track to face the new-look Orioles on Opening Day at Camden Yards.

"Nothing he does surprises us anymore," Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan said. "You're looking at maybe one of the five best pitchers ever to play the game of baseball. He's a marvel to watch. It's beyond description some of the things he does. The man just has a gift, a true gift."

Only in the spring

Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly was so desperate for a leadoff hitter on Monday, he turned to speed-challenged first baseman Mark Grace to bat at the top of the order against the Oakland Athletics.

"I think the skipper had too much wine last night," Grace said when he saw the lineup.

Brenly obviously had some reservations, too, but with Tony Womack and Reggie Sanders unavailable, he went with Grace and his .386 career on-base percentage.

"If he walks to lead off the game, we may have to pinch-run for him," Brenly said jokingly. "He's got the yellow light at all times."

There is precedent for choosing on-base percentage over speed, though Brenly didn't have much of a choice in this instance. Angels manager Gene Mauch had a lot of success using converted catcher - and consistent on-base threat - Brian Downing as his full-time leadoff man.

Grace doubled in his first at-bat and homered his next time up, making his limited speed a non-issue.

Guilt by association

Former Arundel High star Denny Neagle of the Colorado Rockies got his first taste of big-contract resentment Wednesday after he gave up four runs on five hits in the first inning of an exhibition game against the Anaheim Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

"Hey, Neagle!" yelled a disgruntled fan, "at least you have good schools for your kids."

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