Former Padre set to take place among baseball’s greats

Published 4:03 pm Sunday, July 29, 2007

By By BERNIE WILSON, AP Sports Writer
SAN DIEGO — As the perks of a Hall of Fame career piled up — a bronze statue at the ballpark, his image on a Wheaties box, a party fit for a Hollywood star — Tony Gwynn let his mind wander back to his humble beginnings in pro baseball.
He roomed with John Kruk in rookie ball in the summer of 1981 and the two rode their bikes to the ballpark. They wondered how they’d ever show their talent when the bats the team provided were bigger than the ones they had been swinging.
He made it, all right, all the way to Cooperstown.
One of the game’s greatest contact hitters, Gwynn will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, along with Cal Ripken Jr.
His orientation trip to Cooperstown several weeks ago gave him an idea of what he’s getting into.
He saw Jackie Robinson’s glove, held Babe Ruth’s bat, read Walter Johnson’s plaque.
When John Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer, he said he believed that the busts speak to each other at night, when the visitors are all gone.
Gwynn agrees.
Gwynn grew up in the Los Angeles area and saw future Hall of Famers come through Dodger Stadium, such as Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Mike Schmidt.
Later he got to play against some of them and he was never shy about picking their brains.
Gwynn befriended San Diego native Ted Williams at the 1992 All-Star game in San Diego. For years after that, the two went round and round about hitting when they got together. It was Gwynn who helped steady the Splendid Splinter as he prepared to throw the ceremonial first pitch before the 1999 All-Star game at Fenway Park.
Gwynn might have become the first player since Williams to hit .400 if the players hadn’t gone on strike in August 1994. He was hitting .394 at the time, and getting better.
Gwynn wouldn’t reveal much about his induction speech, but he does plan to acknowledge several Hall of Famers who will be sitting behind him on the podium.
And he was a pretty good hitter. He got so good at hitting the ball between shortstop and third base that, in a twist on the numbers used to keep score, he nicknamed it the ‘‘5.5. hole.’’
Three of his contemporaries, all of whom either have Hall of Fame credentials or soon will, recalled Gwynn’s hitting prowess.
Maddux, in his first season with the Padres, said that by facing Gwynn, he learned that pitchers beat lineups, not hitters.
Mets first base coach Rickey Henderson said it was an honor to have been Gwynn’s teammate.
Mets pitcher Tom Glavine, closing in on 300 wins, remembers Gwynn being the consummate professional hitter.
Gwynn’s Padres lost both World Series they played in. But one of his fondest memories was homering off the upper deck facade at Yankee Stadium — off San Diego native David Wells — in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series.
In recent weeks, the Padres honored Gwynn with a party in right field at Qualcomm Stadium and unveiled a 9 1/2-foot bronze statue of the hitter on a grassy knoll just beyond Petco Park’s outfield fence. His image is on a Wheaties box.
Yet Gwynn is probably happiest about seeing his son, Tony Jr., play for the Milwaukee Brewers. The younger Gwynn, who has had two stints with the Brewers this season, was optioned to Triple-A on Wednesday.
Although the Padres swept the Brewers at Petco in June, Gwynn Jr. got a ninth-inning single off one of his dad’s longtime teammates, career saves leader Trevor Hoffman.
Gwynn always wanted to play in the NBA, until realizing during his final year at San Diego State that baseball would be the ticket to the pros.
Gwynn just finished his fifth season as baseball coach at his alma mater.
Asked if he could give a scouting report on himself to one of his pitchers, he said: