Mr. Padre hits a homer at Hall ceremony
Gwynn reflects on great career following induction speech
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Talk about a lineup change. Tony Gwynn thought he was batting third at the Hall of Fame ceremony. Then, just before game time, Gwynn became the leadoff man.
"Panic was going to set in, and I didn't know if I was going to be able to handle it," Gwynn said.
The batting order was changed, because Hall officials feared a thunderstorm might intrude. A record crowd, an estimated 75,000, blanketed the green fields just outside of town. They came primarily to see Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. get inducted.
So, instead of following Royals broadcaster Denny Matthews and St. Louis baseball writer Rick Hummel on the program, Gwynn was first to the dais, followed by Ripken. An old singles hitter, Mr. Padre fit right into the assignment.
OK, he got to the microphone without his notes, but Gwynn recovered them smoothly and, as he had promised, held a baseball conversation with the assembled masses for 27 minutes.
Gwynn's story began with backyard games in Long Beach, Calif., involving his brothers, Charles and Chris.
"For any of us, I don't think any of us thought that hitting a fig or hitting a sockball or hitting a wad of tape was going to turn into this," he said. "It's unbelievable."
Charles was older, led the competitive charge and starred at Cal State-Los Angeles University. Tony and Chris, who also became a Major Leaguer, learned from him. From kids' leagues to San Diego State University, Tony got to the point where, on June 10, 1981, he was drafted by not only by the San Diego Padres but the NBA's San Diego Clippers, as well.
Choosing baseball, he was dispatched to Walla Walla, Wash., by the Padres. In 1981, there was a Major League strike, and the club dispatched Padres manager Frank Howard and hitting coach Bobby Tolan to help in Walla Walla. Gwynn was worried about the transition from aluminum to wood bats, but Tolan assured him that he could do it.
"He promptly took me out on the field, gave me a fungo bat and said, 'Hey, I'm going to flip you some balls, you go ahead and take your swing,'" Gwynn said. "And that day, I hit balls further than I ever hit in my life, and I thought this game was going to be easy."
It wasn't, of course; although Gwynn's great swing might have made it seem that way. He left a legacy of 3,141 hits, a .338 career average, eight National League batting championships and a .371 average in two World Series. And this master of contact struck out a mere 434 times in 10,232 plate appearances.
Gwynn recalled as a Minor Leaguer he was sent to an instructional league complex that the Padres shared with the Angels. Although his boyhood hero, Rod Carew, was an Angels coach, Gwynn sneaked over to hear him talk bunting. That was indicative of his passion for learning the basics of hitting. His search led him to become Capt. Video.
"In June of 1983, I was struggling. We were on the road, and I called home and asked my wife, 'Honey, do you think you could hit the record button for me?'" he said.
She did, getting her husband's televised at-bats on tape.
"From the time I came from that trip until the day I retired, I was a big believer in video," Gwynn said. "I would not be standing here today without video."
Funny thing. In 1984, his first full year as a video addict, his average jumped to .351, he made the first of 15 All-Star teams and the Padres wound up in their first World Series.
Never a big home run hitter, Gwynn likened his style to that of fellow Hall of Famer Wade Boggs. Light bats were part of Gwynn's approach. Then he sat down with Ted Williams, a hitter he greatly admired, during the 1992 All-Star Game.
"The first time I met him, I had a bat in my hands," Gwynn recalled. "He said, 'Let me see your bat.' I handed him my bat, and he started picking his teeth with it."
That was a line designed for laughs, but Williams' wise words helped Gwynn become an even better hitter until the end of his career.
Gwynn kept reeling off sound bites of his career, just talking baseball and raising peels of applause from the record crowd. Known as cheerful, outgoing and friendly, his personality beamed through to the throng.
"I never really looked at what I did as anything special," Gwynn said. "I loved the game. I think that's why you guys are here today. You loved the game, you have a passion for it. I had a passion for it; I still have a passion for it."
Now the coach at San Diego State, Gwynn's transferring his work ethic to his college players.
"My father said, 'If you work hard, good things will happen,' and he was absolutely right. I worked hard in the game, because I had to. I wasn't talented enough to just get by on ability. I had to work at it," he said.
Gwynn's mother was in Cooperstown, but she wasn't feeling well enough to attend the ceremony. Gwynn's wife, Alicia, was there. So was his son, Tony Jr., who plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, and his daughter, Anisha, who sang the U.S. and Canadian national anthems.
On the bus ride to the induction site, other Hall of Famers kept marveling at the crowd heading for the Clark Sports Center site.
"Oh, my goodness! Look up on the hill. I've never seen so many people!" was a typical line.
Ripken and Gwynn didn't know if the guys were serious or just trying to cause "rookie" jitters.
"I was scared to death," Gwynn said later.
Yeah, he really looked scared, scattering stories and memories and goodwill around Cooperstown like so many singles and doubles.
He was the perfect leadoff man.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.