Gwynn retraces his steps

The Baltimore Sun

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Tony Gwynn took fans on a sweeping tour of his career milestones and mentors as he explained yesterday how he became a historically great line-drive hitter and earned entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Though he said he was "scared to death" up on the dais, the jovial Gwynn controlled his emotions as he spoke, even when talking of his deceased father and of his mother, who was in Cooperstown but unable to attend the ceremony because of an illness.

"When you laugh and you can laugh at yourself and laugh at others, the game can be a lot of fun," he said.

Though outnumbered by Cal Ripken Jr. lovers, Gwynn fans formed a vocal minority yesterday, chanting "Tony, Tony" on several occasions. One man wore an Afro wig in tribute to the young, big-haired Gwynn.

Gwynn joked that the crowd was so intimidating that he followed Hall of Famer Gary Carter's advice to just "look at the trees, look at the trees."

Gwynn learned the game in Long Beach, Calif., slapping figs, balled-up socks and wads of tape with his brothers, Charles and Chris.

He became a tremendous all-around athlete, earning a scholarship to play point guard at San Diego State.

"I know people are out there shaking their heads," joked the portly Gwynn when remembering his basketball glory. He was drafted by the Padres and San Diego Clippers on the same day in 1981 but chose baseball.

He hit well in the minors but said the real turning point occurred when he was slumping during his second season with the Padres.

"I called home and said, 'Honey, do you think you can hit the record button for me?' " he said.

Gwynn's wife obliged, and thus began his long and obsessive relationship with tape watching. He batted .351 the next season. "I would not be standing here today if it weren't for video," he said.

Gwynn experienced another turning point when he first talked hitting with Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams. Williams encouraged him to drive the ball more, and Gwynn said that made him a better hitter during the second half of his career.

Gwynn batted .338 for his career, won eight batting titles and collected 3,141 hits, many between the shortstop and third baseman, or "5.5 hole." Because of his affinity for the spot, he penned 5.5 on his game spikes, and yesterday Padres fans ran through the crowd with a huge sign bearing those numbers.

Gwynn spent the week deprecating his talents and questioning how he received 97.6 percent of the vote. But even fellow greats held the outfielder's bat control in awe.

Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs said he saw a similarity between himself and Gwynn - contact hitters who sprayed line drives to all corners.

"If he went 2-for-4, I wanted to go 3-for-4," Boggs said. "We always had our own running battle. But if I had to tell a young hitter to emulate anyone, I'd say emulate Tony Gwynn."

Said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, "He hit like a guy who knew what was coming."

Gwynn said he realized he had a shot at the Hall when he slapped his 2,000th hit in 1993.

"I love the game," he told the crowd. "And I think that's why you guys are here, because you love the game."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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