For Gwynn, it's a home run

Noted singles hitter polls 97.6 percent of vote

Also voted in

Hall Of Fame

January 10, 2007|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN REPORTER

The man who never flinched in the batter's box during his 20 seasons in the majors, who never lost his composure under the most trying of circumstances, had a natural reaction yesterday when informed by phone that he was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot.

Tony Gwynn broke down and wept.

Smooth swing, raw emotions.

"For the last five years, I kind of thought what that call was going to be like," Gwynn said. "When I heard, `Congratulations, you made the Hall of Fame,' I lost it. I just could not imagine the feeling that you were going to get. It was elation, it was thinking about my father, my family, thinking about all the hard work you put into it.

"I thought what I did was going to be worthy, but until you actually hear it and those words come out ... I just lost it."

Gwynn's reaction wasn't born out of shock that he received the necessary percentage of votes for induction. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the eight-time batting champion and 15-time All-Star would have his plaque hanging in Cooperstown, N.Y., this summer, that he would enter the Hall in the same year as Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr.

The first homegrown San Diego Padre to be elected, Gwynn received 97.6 percent of the votes, the seventh-highest total in history. Thirteen writers didn't include Gwynn on their ballot.

Like Ripken, Gwynn spent his entire career with one team, a rarity in today's era of free-agent defections and deadline trades. But he was different in other ways, too - the kind that don't often gain a player entrance into the Hall.

Gwynn didn't launch tape-measure home runs, or many others, for that matter. He never hit more than 17 in a season, and totaled only 135 in 2,440 games. Gwynn was primarily a singles hitter, so accomplished that he retired with a .338 batting average. He found gaps in the outfield, not the bleachers in right field.

"For me, it's kind of validation, because the type of player I was doesn't get a whole lot of credit in today's game," said Gwynn, whose eight batting titles tied Honus Wagner's National League record. "When you make that conscious decision to be that type of player, you better be pretty consistent at it and you better do a lot of it.

"If this means being a Punch-and-Judy spokesman, I'm more than happy to do it."

Unlike some past entrants who were elected despite their contentious relationships with the media, Gwynn was known for his accessibility, honesty and friendly demeanor. It was rare to catch him without a smile on his face and a handshake at the ready.

"People felt like I handled it the right way," he said. "I personally thought that, not only was it my responsibility to try to play the best baseball I could play, but to try to answer the questions the writers might have. Every team needs that go-to guy, and I felt like that was part of my job, too. And when you look at the voting results, I think you're getting a combination of both of those things.

"You're getting a guy who did his craft very well, and at the same time was very upfront with the press and tried to deal with them face-to-face. I didn't run from it. And it was a good relationship. They did what they had to do, and the writers gave me the freedom to do what I had to do."

Gwynn's teammates often stood back and marveled at his skill with a bat. It almost seemed as though he held a magic wand made of lumber.

The ultimate contact hitter, Gwynn struck out only 434 times in 9,288 at-bats. He amassed 3,141 hits, and his .394 average in the strike-shortened 1994 season is the highest to lead either league in the past 65 years. In the 1998 World Series, he went 8-for-16 with a home run.

"The thing that impressed me the most was his passion and his quest to be better and better as a hitter and to understand hitting," Ripken said. "If you wanted, you could have a 24-hour conversation with Tony about hitting. All you have to do is open it up and ask the question, and he'd be there examining every aspect of it."

Orioles infielder Chris Gomez, who played for San Diego from 1996 through 2001, said Gwynn saw hitting "different than other people."

"How early he recognized pitches and what else he saw early ... that explains a lot," Gomez said. "A bad day for him was 1-for-4. He was just able to get hits. And he wasn't the fastest runner when I played with him, so all of his hits were legitimate base hits. He wasn't legging them out. And he could foul off good pitches. He could do it all."

Gwynn, the baseball coach at San Diego State, wasn't blessed with an athletic build, which further endeared him to fans who saw a little of themselves in his thick waistline. But it was deceiving. He could steal bases, and he won five Gold Gloves in right field. Gwynn also was an accomplished basketball player who might have chosen that sport if the Padres hadn't drafted him in the third round in 1981.

"He had those quick hands and great vision and a great work ethic," Gomez said. "You put that all together and it doesn't matter how you look."

"I was 5-10," Gwynn said. "The chances of me playing big league baseball were a whole lot better than me playing in the NBA. I chose baseball and it worked out."

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