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It's déjà vu all over again in San Diego

Discussion in 'All Other Sports' started by Kwak, Jun 30, 2009.

  1. Kwak

    Kwak ....

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    Link for rest. Its long, but worth the read. :tup:

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    Tony (don't call him Junior) Gwynn at ease following in his famous father's footsteps
    By Tom Friend
    ESPN The Magazine

    SAN DIEGO -- Every morning, this city wakes up to 1994. Every morning, a sports page arrives with a box score, a name and a "What's going on here?" moment. Baseball's had far bigger stories this year -- from A-Rod to Manny to Sosa -- but lost in all the urinalysis is a tale of déjà vu: the reincarnation of Tony Gwynn.

    People out here are flat-out stumped. Just this month, a flustered man scoured a box score, called a Southern California talk radio show and asked, "Hey, when did Tony Gwynn un-retire? I see he played for the San Diego Padres last night.''

    It is baseball's Rubik's Cube moment. It is a Turn-Back-The-Clock Night -- taken too far. The fact is, every day in the National League West, someone named Tony Gwynn is impersonating Tony Gwynn … and getting away with it.

    His name is the same, his inside-out swing is the same, his voice is the same and, give or take a few singles, his batting average is the same. "Every time he's announced and you see him running to the outfield, it's almost like 'Field of Dreams,'" says a giddy Kevin Towers, the Padres' general manager.

    It's a phenomenon at 40 days, and counting, and if people are still wondering how a second Tony Gwynn appeared out of thin air, here's the answer:

    He didn't.
    Seventeen years ago, in Poway, Calif., a child named Anthony Keith Gwynn Jr. stepped into a Little League batter's box -- to try a legacy on for size.

    The crowd was tiny that day, mostly moms, dads and sisters, but the first comment rang hard in Anthony's mother's ears:

    "Hey, do what your dad does!"

    When he grounded out, the next comment rang harder:

    "Your dad didn't do it like that!"

    And when he later struck out, the next comment rang hardest:

    "Your dad didn't strike out!"

    Alicia Gwynn, one game into Anthony Gwynn Jr.'s baseball career, had already had enough.

    "I turned around," she remembers, "and I said, 'Excuse me, he's not his dad, okay? He's Junior, so Junior will not be like dad. There is one Tony Gwynn.' It would make me emotional. I'd say, 'Leave my son alone, okay, and let him play ball. Let him enjoy and have fun.' I literally stopped coming to the games. I thought there was too much pressure."

    So this is where the journey started, a journey that is all about one name and two men.

    Tony Gwynn -- the father, the Hall of Famer and the 20-year Padre -- has 3,141 hits, eight batting titles, five Gold Gloves, a career .338 average … and one sensitive son. He was never going to point the kid in the direction of a batting cage, never going to ask him to be another him. That's why -- from birth through Little League through high school -- Tony Gwynn had another name for his son: Anthony.

    Others called him Little Tony or Little T, and in the kid's early, early years -- ages 4 to 10 -- he appeared to embrace everything baseball and Gwynn. He would continually eyeball his father, who, at the time, was perhaps the most obsessed ballplayer of any generation. Tony Sr. could tell you who he doubled against on April 19, 1985 (two against Bobby Castillo). Big T taped every at-bat, took a makeshift video library on the road and analyzed his swing until the sun came up. He would go 3-for-4 and claim he was "scuffling." He swore home runs corrupted his swing, because he'd struggle afterward to keep his greedy hands back. He made the term "5.5 hole'' a household word in San Diego, because, seven out of 10 times, that's where he'd slap the ball: between short and third.

    Young Anthony would sneak into his dad's video library, and play back all the stellar at-bats. He'd study them repeatedly, to the point he knew the announcers' calls verbatim. Then, Alicia would find him on his father's batting tee, regurgitating Jerry Coleman or Ted Leitner: "Another double by Tooooonyyyyy Gwynn!"

    But Little League changed everything for the sensitive son. He'd never seen a real fastball before, and when he whiffed at six batting practice pitches in a row, his coach yelped, "You have work to do to be like your father." The kid was 9; it killed him.

    The sport felt exclusively his dad's. It felt borrowed. He told Alicia he was "reluctant" to do what his dad did, told her "They're just going to say I'm here because of him."

    By middle school, Anthony says he "didn't want to play baseball anymore" and became a full-time point guard in basketball. His father had played the point, too -- was actually drafted out of San Diego State by the then-San Diego Clippers and the Padres on the same day. But at least the Tony Gwynn basketball legacy was manageable.

    Little T played the AAU Circuit, started for his high school hoops team. Family members say he could dish as well as his dad, and shoot better, too. But every summer, he'd still hang in the Padres' clubhouse. Every year, he'd still shag flies with Trevor Hoffman, spit sunflower seeds in the dugout. He had to stop lying to himself; he kind of liked the damn game.

    By 11th grade, he began feverishly playing baseball again, batting .400 and chasing down every ball in the outfield. But his dad had a request for the newspapers:

    "Call him Anthony."

    Two years later, in 2001, get a load of where the kid was standing: in Tony Gwynn Stadium.

    Out of high school, he'd been all set to attend Cal State Fullerton, but his heart was still at home -- with his entire family and support system. At the time, he wasn't ready to be Tony Gwynn's baseball-playing son, not all on his own, anyway. So instead of running away from the name, he ran 100 mph toward it -- straight to his father's alma mater, San Diego State, where the field was named after you-know-who.

    If that wasn't eerie enough, guess who became the Aztecs' head baseball coach the following year, in 2002? Big T.

    It meant Anthony Gwynn was playing for Tony Gwynn at Tony Gwynn Stadium, and if all eyes weren't on him before, they were piercing him now. No one knew how he'd fare. In his debut game as a freshman, the year before his dad became head coach, he'd been announced as "Tony Gwynn Jr." -- and had played horribly. The coach at the time, Jim Dietz, told him, "I think it's best if we go back to Anthony," and when his dad took over, it was definitely going to be Anthony. It was just a nervous time. Moments before his first game under his father, the kid remembers feeling paralyzed. He remembers running to center field, seeing his dad's name on a stanchion and nearly tipping over. "But when I turned around to face home plate, I was okay," he says.

    Those three seasons at San Diego State seemed to teach Anthony he could thrive -- even with his old man pacing away in the dugout. He batted .318 as a freshman, .339 as a sophomore, .359 as a junior, and had a certain team down Interstate 8 foaming at the mouth.

    The Padres wanted the kid. They couldn't justify taking him in the first round of the 2003 draft, but they decided the second round was the absolute right spot. First of all, the goodwill in town would be off the charts, and the organization needed more speed in its farm system. The team was all set to select him with the 41st overall pick when … the Milwaukee Brewers took him at No. 39. "We thought we were going to get him," says Towers. "I was kind of … I'm not going to say ticked … but I remember saying, 'We're going to take some heat on this one. We're going to get crushed by the media. We lost out on a Gwynn?'"

    Like it or not, Anthony was finally leaving home, and he assured a concerned Alicia -- who couldn't handle the Little League catcalls -- that he wouldn't cave under the expectations.

    "You know what, Mom?" he said before leaving for the airport. "I really, truly have embraced this, because I'm really proud of what dad did, and I know these are his accomplishments. I'm walking his path, but I'll create my own accomplishments."

    Alicia beamed: "That's right. That's right. You do you. Don't do your dad. Do you."

    Imagine her surprise when he came back three years later with a strange new name: Tony Gwynn Jr.

    Maybe his first mistake was ordering his father's tiny, 30-and-a-half-ounce bats. Maybe his second mistake was getting his first big league hit on July 19, 2006, 24 years to the day after Big T got his first. Both were doubles. Both were screaming line drives. It was borderline bizarre.

    So, naturally, his friends in the Brewers organization -- Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks among them -- began calling him Tony Jr. The radio and P.A. announcers piggybacked on it, too. He didn't mind. Nobody was paying attention nationally, anyway.

    "Watching Ken Griffey Jr. play, I'd always imagined being Tony Gwynn Jr.," he says. "I mean, that's how I always wanted my name to be announced, anyway."

    But then, on the next to last day of the 2007 season, the hometown Padres came to Miller Park with a magic number of one. San Diego led 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth, and all that stood between San Diego and its third straight postseason appearance was … someone calling himself Tony Gwynn Jr.?

    Facing his Uncle Trevor with two outs, two strikes and a man on base -- the same Uncle Trevor who was baseball's all-time saves leader -- Little T ripped a triple down the first-base line on a pitch down at his shins.

    His father, Mr. Padre, leaped in the air. Every other Padre, including owner and family friend John Moores, slumped in their chairs. TV cameras caught Moores' wife, Becky, saying "s---." It was too cruel: a Gwynn ripping the Padres' hearts out. A Gwynn emasculating Trevor, of all people. A Gwynn ultimately costing the Padres a playoff berth. But as the kid stood on third base, dusting himself off, a chill came over Alicia Gwynn.

    "I said, 'This is vintage Tony Gwynn,'" she remembers. "It was so eerie when I looked at that hit. The pitch was out of the strike zone, but he put it where he put it.

    "That's when I saw the first sign. That's when I said, "Hmmmmm.'"

    How did the Brewers repay Little T in 2008? They tried to replace him.

    First, they signed Mike Cameron, even though Cameron had to serve a 30-day suspension to start the season. And when Little T went down with a hamstring injury (after beginning the season 4 for his first 7), they fell in love with another center fielder, Gabe Kapler. The timing couldn't have been worse. Little T had finally mastered the art of hitting the ball where it was pitched -- the core belief of his dad. He'd keep his hands back. If they pitched him inside, he'd pull it; if they pitched him away, he'd aim for the 5.5 hole. It was simple. But then, it wasn't.

    When he returned from the injury, with Cameron and Kapler hitting for power, Little T sensed the Brewers preferred players with pop in their bats. His strength was putting the ball in play on offense and running everything down on defense. He could steal bases. He was perfect for, say, cavernous Petco Park, but maybe not compact Miller Park. He felt an inherent pressure to do more, to hit more doubles, more gappers. And even though he had zero career home runs, he felt going deep once or twice wouldn't hurt, either.

    But all that did was play with his mind, and his fundamentals. He couldn't keep his hands back. He was given only 49 big league plate appearances the entire year, batting a career low .190, and spent most of the season (93 games) in Triple-A Nashville.

    When the Brewers hired a relative stranger, Ken Macha, as their new manager, it only worsened. Former manager Ned Yost appreciated the kid, but Macha favored the long ball and wasn't sure he wanted a punch-and-judy backup outfielder. And when Little T had a sore throwing shoulder in spring training, it was obviously over. Out of minor league options, he was waived on the eve of the 2009 season.

    Surely, someone would claim him. Washington, Seattle and San Diego had the first three cracks at him -- because they had the three worst records from 2008 -- but all three passed. It was stunning. Seattle's general manager, Jack Zduriencik, had drafted him in Milwaukee, and the Padres had known him since he was a tyke. But they still didn't bite. The Padres, for instance, were concerned about his shoulder, didn't like that he was out of options and didn't want to tinker with their 40-man roster. Every other team in baseball felt the same way. So Little T cleared waivers, and was rewarded back to the Brewers.

    "I couldn't believe the Pads didn't claim him,'' Tony Gwynn Sr. says. "I was shocked. He fit perfect in this ballpark. He plays defense, he can run. The whole thing, a no-brainer. But when they didn't claim him, I was like, 'It's a conspiracy. What the hell? What's going on?'"
     

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