Monday, July 30, 2007

'The Padre way' to immortality

Tony Gwynn takes his place among baseball's elite
By Chris Jenkins

July 30, 2007

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – If it were simply a baseball game, even the biggest baseball game of his life, he could have played it cool in the hottest heat. Throw him a change, a change of any kind, and he could handle it with nary a flinch.

Precisely because he was so adept as a hitter, Tony Gwynn yesterday was sitting in a bus full of baseball legends as it approached the Clark Sports Center, site of the Hall of Fame induction ceremony for him and Cal Ripken Jr.

Gwynn had barely absorbed the stunning view of 75,000 people assembled in the duo's honor – by far the largest crowd ever for an induction ceremony – when he learned that the lineup had just been changed because of threatening weather.

Instead of going third in the order, his customary and assigned spot, Gwynn was up first yesterday. Leadoff. With only minutes to go.

Admittedly, he freaked.

“I was scared to death,” Gwynn said. “Like Cal, I was the kind of player who liked to be prepared. But when things change, man, now you're scrambling.”

As he said throughout the lead-up to this first enshrinement of a player who spent his entire career with the Padres, Gwynn wasn't up there alone. Indeed, the thousands of fans who made the odyssey from San Diego nudged and cajoled him through his speech of nearly 28 minutes, punctuating his career recollections and words of gratitude with their applause and chants of “To-ny! To-ny! To-ny!”

“I played for one organization, the San Diego Padres, and when this day started out today, I thought I was going to go third,” Gwynn told the crowd, which was informed that the induction of Gwynn and Ripken would be moved up as defense against thunderstorms that were forecast but never arrived. “I thought I was going to get to hear what other people said about their teams and their towns and their cities. I only know one way – that's the Padre way.

“I wore brown. I wore the brown and gold. I wore the blue and orange. I didn't get a chance to wear the (current) 'sand' and whatever color blue you want to call that, but I'm proud as heck to be a San Diego Padre. I played for one team. I played in one town.”

So did Ripken, whose induction immediately followed Gwynn's. He spent his 21 years with the Baltimore Orioles and seemed to have brought most of Maryland with him to the tiny village of Cooperstown, which had never had a crowd of more than 50,000 for an induction ceremony. Baltimore is a great baseball city, and Ripken went from local star to national hero as the game's true definition of the “everyday player.”

Gwynn came from a different sort of place, though, a place where San Diego too long was known for its wretched baseball teams. When that began to change in the early 1980s, Gwynn was a big part of the reason, playing in two World Series and winning three division championships in his 20 years. He also won eight National League batting titles and was chosen to 15 All-Star Games, and last week a statue of him was unveiled at Petco Park that identified him as “Mr. Padre.”

As Gwynn and Ripken stood behind the lectern, they stared out over a scene that has been likened to a sporting form of Woodstock, with fans filling a lawn between the stage and the trees on a hillside at least 500 yards away. Behind them sat 53 Hall of Famers. Four of those – Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith, Gaylord Perry and Rollie Fingers – played for the Padres during their careers.

One of the Hall of Fame's rituals is that new inductees get treated like rookies, and Gwynn had been sensing he was in store for some sort of prank. So when others kept telling him that he and Ripken had drawn an unprecedented crowd – one larger than any that either inductee had ever played for – Gwynn “thought they were messing with me.” Then the bus turned the corner and he saw the sea of humanity.

Not what he needed to see. His son, Anthony, said his dad was pretty shaky at the hotel yesterday morning.

“He's a lot different,” said Anthony, a Poway High School and San Diego State University product who is now an outfielder with the Milwaukee Brewers organization. “Normally, he holds himself together, stays strong. I've seen what he was like at World Series games and the All-Star Game, always keeping calm, but I've never seen him this nervous.”

Gwynn thought he had a built-in mechanism to stay calm. That was his daughter, Anisha, a recording artist who sang the national anthems of Canada and the United States for yesterday's ceremonies.

“We were both pacing this morning,” said Tony Gwynn. “I was trying to get her to calm down and she was trying to get me to calm down.”

Upon arrival, it was announced that Gwynn and Ripken would go ahead of the baseball writer (Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) and broadcaster (Denny Matthews of Kansas City), whose award ceremonies originally were scheduled to open the program.

Waving his arms wildly, Gwynn laughed and said, “My daughter's going, 'Oh man, you've gotta go first!' ”

As would Ripken, Gwynn maintained an even keel until he began to discuss his family. His mother, Vendella, had made the trip to Cooperstown, but has been “under the weather” the past couple of days and could not attend the ceremony. As did Ripken, Gwynn sped through references to his deceased father. Both inductees had said that that's when they expected to have their most difficulty.

Their most touching sentiments were saved for their wives, Alicia Gwynn and Kelly Ripken. Otherwise, Gwynn mostly traced his playing days from high school in Long Beach to college at San Diego State – where he is the head coach of the Aztecs baseball team – to his professional career, from his first stop in the minors in Walla Walla, Wash., to 3,000 hits.

“In many ways, I was jealous,” Ripken said. “Tony was able to go up there and keep track of what he wanted to say and keep his emotions under control. It looked like he was fidgety at the start, but once he got up there, it's like he was having a conversation with everyone else. ... I thought he was home, comfortable, and did a nice job.”

Nothing more than All-Star Game acquaintances in January when both were overwhelmingly elected to the Hall of Fame, Gwynn and Ripken have become a sort of tag team, cast together as inductees for television appearances and news conferences. The boom in interest in yesterday's event was deemed a direct reflection of two veterans with impeccable references and images, not to mention abilities with both bat and glove.

“With our teams, in our cities, people trusted us,” Gwynn said. “They trusted how we played the game and how we conducted ourselves. They trusted us to play the game right and take care of business the right way. They can look back on our careers and see that we did things the right way. There's no question about that.

“There's no way I'm a 97.6 percent (the vote in support of his induction) guy. I don't care what people say. That vote was for what kind of person I am.”

The vote set Gwynn up for a wondrous but stress-filled and demand-packed half year. The sigh of relief he breathed yesterday, people probably heard all the way to San Diego.

“I'm so glad we don't have to do this again,” Gwynn said. “When I come back next year, I'm gonna sit out by the lake (Otsego) with a cigar and let somebody else go through it.”

Chris Jenkins: (619) 293-1267;

1 comment:

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