Hometown Hero

Article excerpt

San Diego's Tony Gwynn, last of baseball's great contact hitters, retires this month.

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.

Gwynn, age 41, 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" says Gwynn. "Whether you're doing it four times a game or one time, you're still getting a chance to do it. 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 could have shopped himself around in the off-season to find a bigger role on another team but decided against it. "I was a free agent last winter," he says. "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 Jr. and Alan Trammell, former Detroit Tigers shortstop and now Padres first-base coach, are the only players to debut since free agency began in 1975, play at least 20 years and remain with one team. 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 says. "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 Baltimore Orioles' Iron Man did, instead making his mark with one of the sweetest swings in history. His .339 lifetime batting average is the highest of any player whose career began after World War II. No wonder Cincinnati Reds star Ken Griffey Jr., a likely Cooperstown enshrinee himself, says 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," says 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," says Gwynn, who was named baseball's 1999 Man of the Year for his community service. …