- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2001

SAN DIEGO The greatest hitter of the last four decades mostly sits on the bench and watches these days.

Tony Gwynn owns a record-tying eight National League batting titles. He won five Gold Gloves for his prowess in right field. He is closing in on a 19th consecutive season of batting .300 or better, a feat topped only by Ty Cobb. But now he just sits and waits for his next pinch-hit appearance.

The 41-year-old Gwynn is finishing his glorious career as a spare part on a mediocre San Diego Padres team. He is quietly playing out his final season in baseball's media-unfriendly southwestern outpost, a great contact hitter in a home run-crazed era.

That's all right with the ever-cheerful Gwynn. He's not upset. That's not his style.

"I love what I do. Whether you're doing it four times a game or one time, you're still getting a chance to do it," Gwynn said. "I can't do things the way I always did. I'm not going to go out to right field and jeopardize my team's chances of winning because I want to be in the lineup. In the National League, you don't have the luxury of being the designated hitter. You have to learn to be honest."

On June 28, Gwynn announced his retirement, effective the end of the season. He played in just 36 games last year because of knee surgery and just 16 of the first 82 this season because of a strained hamstring. He has been relegated to pinch-hitting status since he was activated from the disabled list July 3.

Typically, Gwynn has thrived in his new role. He's 8-for-13 as a pinch-hitter, including four doubles, six RBI and a walk in his last eight pinch-hit at-bats.

Gwynn could have shopped himself around in the offseason to find a bigger role on another team but decided against it.

"I was a free agent last winter," he said. "A lot of guys throw themselves up for barter, say, 'If the money's right, I'm gone.' But that's not me. Cleveland and Kansas City wanted me to be their DH, but playing at home in San Diego means more to me. I didn't want to start all over."

Gwynn, Cal Ripken and Padres first base coach Alan Trammell, the longtime Detroit Tigers shortstop, are the only players to debut since free agency began in 1975 who played at least 20 years and remained with one team. So Gwynn and Ripken might be the last of a breed especially since both did it in their adopted hometowns.

"Cal and I did a lot of interviews together the day before the All-Star Game, and we said that we were glad that we were retiring the same year," Gwynn said. "We're completely different players, but we're very similar in our approach. We both loved playing in our hometowns. We loved our organizations. And a lot of people took us for granted because of our consistency."

Gwynn didn't play every day for 14 years as the Iron Man did, instead making his mark with one of the sweetest swings in history. Gwynn, currently batting .382, has a .339 lifetime average the highest of any player whose career began after World War II. No wonder Reds star Ken Griffey Jr., a likely Cooperstown enshrinee himself, said the Hall of Fame should waive its five-year waiting period and immediately induct Gwynn and Ripken.

"Sometimes when you play down here you don't know if people are watching, so it has been beautiful to see Tony being honored as we go to these cities for the last time," said third base coach Tim Flannery, the team's second baseman when Gwynn broke in July 19, 1982. "It makes us all stop and consider what Tony has done. Not just the statistics, but what it takes to live this lifestyle for 20 years, the travel and having to be Tony Gwynn. Wherever you go, people know you and want a little piece of you."

That never bothered Gwynn. Far from it.

"To me that's part of our job as major league players, that people remember that moment they have with you," said Gwynn, who was named baseball's 1999 man of the year for his community service. "I want that to be special, not 'I can't sign right now.' I want them to have a positive memory. You can't do that for everybody, but you can try."

Just as Gwynn never took the fans for granted, he also always respected the game.

"I know how hard Tony works to make this game look easy," Flannery said. "The moment that epitomizes Tony isn't one moment. It's one moment every single day. For 20 years, he has been out here every day for early hitting at 3:30. Tony's so good at what he does that he knows what the pitcher is going to throw him before the pitcher knows.

"Two years ago in Cincinnati, he was facing a left-hander with runners on first and second. Before a pitch was thrown, it started to rain and the game was suspended. Tony told me that the pitcher was going to throw him a first-pitch slider and that he was going to hit it into the left-center field gap to tie up the game. The next day, Tony hit a first-pitch slider for a double to left. At that point, I had seen it all with this guy. Tony was blessed with great talent, but he's also totally committed to his craft. Most of us go home after the game and hang out. Tony goes home with videotapes and studies the pitchers."

Remarkably, Gwynn became a better hitter in the second half of his career. He hit .353 or better from 1993 to 1997 after topping that figure just once before.

"Good hitters are blessed with good eyesight and good hand-eye coordination, but your heart is what determines how far you go," Gwynn said. "I learned early that you have to work hard at this game. Nobody perfects it. I was a .328 hitter for a long time, but then I had a conversation with Ted Williams that changed the way I approached hitting. Nobody's career average goes up 10 points after they've played 10 years, but mine did. I was a much better hitter my last 10 years. You have to have an open mind and work hard and you learn from your experiences."

Gwynn learned from experience and from some of the game's best hitters.

"I was out for early hitting one day in 1985," Gwynn said, "and Pete Rose told me, 'Tony, you take 60-70 cuts a day. You don't need to hit that much. In time, you'll learn that it's the quality not the quantity.' Another time, Stan Musial told me, 'Sometimes I was so in tune with what I was doing that it was almost like there was a little guy on my shoulder saying, he's going to throw a curveball, dummy! Get ready!' I laughed because that is what it feels like when you're going good.' "

Gwynn was going so good in 1994 that he was threatening to replace Williams (.406 in 1941) as the last man to hit .400. A .475 tear had raised his average to .394 when the players went on strike Aug. 10, halting the season seven weeks early.

"I would like to have been able to have finished that year and see what would have happened," Gwynn said. "I was going to make a good run at it."

Gwynn was an All-Western Athletic Conference point guard at San Diego State (where he hopes to become the baseball coach next season) before he signed with the Padres in 1981 and focused on baseball.

Gwynn could always run. He averaged 34 steals from 1984 to 1989 with a high of 56. And he was a naturally gifted hitter, spending just a year and a half in the minors before bringing his .300 stroke to San Diego. But defense was another matter.

"When I signed I was terrible defensively," Gwynn said. "Not being able to play defense is how I evolved into the player I am. I've always been blessed with the ability to hit a baseball, but no one who saw me in high school or college would ever have believed that I would win five Gold Gloves. Those mean a whole lot more to me than the eight silver bats because I had to work so hard for them.

"I would like people to say that I played the game the way it was supposed to be played."

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