Going back to school, Gwynn feels at home

ON BASEBALL

February 23, 2003|By Peter Schmuck

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - The Hall of Fame awaits, but former San Diego Padres superstar Tony Gwynn has chosen to continue his baseball career among the halls of higher learning.

He was one of major-league baseball's purest hitters. Now he is enjoying the purity of the game as it is played at the collegiate level.

OK, enough with the cliches. Gwynn is in his first year as head coach at San Diego State University, and in his haste to transform the Aztecs into a top-level Division I program, he brought them to South Florida this weekend for a series against the highly regarded University of Miami Hurricanes.

It isn't going that well yet. The Aztecs lost the first game of the series on Friday night to drop below .500 (5-6) - and they have been swinging the bats in a very un-Tony-Gwynn-like manner for the first few weeks of the season - but Gwynn says he wouldn't want to be doing anything else.

"I could have done a lot of things," he said. "When you play 20 years, it puts you in position to do what you want to ... not what people expect you to do."

His alma mater presented a unique challenge. Gwynn coaches a team that plays in a stadium that is named for him. He also gets to coach his son Anthony, a speedy outfielder who is considered a strong pro prospect.

For a guy whose infectious smile lit up baseball for two decades, it apparently doesn't get any better than this.

"For me, it's a blast," he said. "For him, I don't know. I know it's tough. He's playing for his dad in a park named after his dad. People think he wants to be like his dad."

But Gwynn now has 39 other sons, which must also take some getting used to for a son who has always had to share his father with the baseball world.

So far, it seems to be working out well on the home front, even if things have not gone quite so well for Gwynn's new extended family on the field.

The Aztecs visited perennial collegiate powerhouse Arizona State for a three-game series and came home empty-handed. Things didn't figure to improve much after the team traveled coast-to-coast for a weekend against the Hurricanes.

"If you look at our offensive numbers, I've stunk as a hitting coach," Gwynn said Friday. "We're just now starting to see results. If I was grading myself, I'd give myself a `C' right now."

It is a different world than the one that Gwynn conquered during his playing career. Major-league teams have large front office staffs to seek out the best talent. College coaches, even at the well-funded Division I level, have to do the heavy lifting themselves.

Gwynn insists that's part of the fun, but his reputation as one of the best hitters in baseball history can work both for him and against him when he walks through the front door of a coveted recruit.

"I go in and they've heard [from competing coaches] I'm not going to be around that long," Gwynn said. "I'm going to turn everyone into a contact hitter ... I'm going to leave any minute to go work for ESPN."

Tearing down the other coach is a common tactic in college recruiting, and it can get a lot nastier than that, but it's almost hard to blame opposing coaches for trying to use Gwynn's major-league credentials against him. How else do you compete with Gwynn's winning personality and his tremendous name recognition?

"It's funny, because they feel like I have an unfair advantage because of who I am," Gwynn said. "In a sense, I do, but I also have a big mountain to climb. The last [NCAA] regional we played in was 1991 and we haven't ever been to the College World Series."

It's sort of like playing for the Padres all those lean years, in the shadow of more established teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Gwynn clearly is enjoying the new challenge.

Teaching moment

The death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler provided a teaching moment for Gwynn and the San Diego State staff, as it probably did for almost every high-profile college baseball program.

"When something happens like that, you're really forced to sit your guys down and talk about what they should and shouldn't do," Gwynn said. " ... We try to be [vigilant]. We talk about it."

Of course, in the NCAA there is a program in place to discourage the use of products that contain ephedrine, the weight-loss aid and stimulant believed to have contributed to Bechler's death.

"One thing we have that MLB doesn't have is drug testing," Gwynn said. "Every once in a while a couple of guys are called out [randomly] and checked."

Gwynn has a special perspective on this issue, since he battled a weight problem throughout his career. Bechler was believed to have felt pressure to drop weight quickly at the start of spring training.

"That I can really talk about," Gwynn said. "Every year, I knew weight was going to be a problem and I needed to get to working at it. I was pretty boring. The only thing I took was Vitamin C.

"One of the problems with sports today is, guys want things to happen too quickly instead of preparing for it."

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