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Monday, Aug. 7, 2006 | Tony Gwynn – the retired future Hall-of-Famer, not the son with the same name appearing this summer in Milwaukee Brewers box scores – talked a couple months back about his first Major League hit – the first of 3,141.
When he received the phone call every minor league player awaits, he was in Hawaii with the Padres’ Triple A team then based in paradise. He was quickly on a plane and flew all night to San Diego, where the Philadelphia Phillies were in town.
“The whole time I was thinking, ‘I hope I don’t have to face Steve Carlton my first Major League at bat,” said Gwynn with that distinctive, effervescent laugh of his.
Never mind that Carlton is in the Hall of Fame and that Gwynn is expected to join him as a first-ballot inductee in January. The picture Gwynn painted was of a rookie lefty facing a nasty, veteran lefty who was in the midst of his sixth and final 20-win season.
“I went down to the newspaper rack, put in my quarter and opened the paper to see who was pitching,” said Gwynn, who breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Mike Krukow’s name printed.
The date was July 19, 1982, and Krukow lasted only an inning and a third. Gwynn went 2-for-4 with one run scored and one RBI. His first hit was a double to right field.
Uncannily, Tony Gwynn Jr. ripped his first Major League hit, a double to right field, as a pinch-hitter on July 19, 2006 – 24 years to the day after his father’s double to right field. It was Tony Jr.’s third at bat as pinch-hitter since he had been called up four days earlier from the Triple A Nashville Sounds.
“I was aware of it before the game, because I was interviewed and it was mentioned to me,” said Tony Jr., whose hit came off rookie reliever Brian Wilson. “But you forget about that by the time you get in the box. In that situation, I was thinking (Wilson) had gotten me out two nights earlier with a fastball in. I got in a good hitting position and I was ready.”
Tony Sr.’s call-up anecdote had me wondering how things have changed for a player of Tony Jr.’s era, an age of instant communication with Internet access to websites and ESPN updates on television or via cell phone.
Somehow, these days I don’t picture ballplayers plopping quarters into machines for day-old information that can be culled quicker than from a newspaper.
Tony Jr. said he was in his Nashville apartment when his manager called him at 9 a.m. with the news. He had three hours to pack and be on a flight from Nashville to Dallas for a connecting flight to Phoenix and a game that night against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“Everything happened so fast,” he said. “I didn’t have time for newspapers or anything else.”
Adding to the anxiety, his flight into Dallas was 45 minutes late. What’s a more helpless feeling sitting on a plane – worrying about Steve Carlton or making your connecting flight?
“I didn’t think I’d make it, but I did,” Tony Jr. said. “Then I had to go straight to ballpark. But even if I would have had time to go to the hotel, I would have still gone to the ballpark first. I wanted to enjoy the moment.”
Gwynn, of course, grew up around Major League ballparks and clubhouses. But that didn’t make his first crossing of a big-league clubhouse threshold as a player any less special. He felt like a kid, just like you or me would have.
“It’s exciting when you walk in and see your name on a nameplate at your locker with your jersey hanging,” he said. “I’m thinking, ‘These are the uniforms you see on TV. I’m putting on a jersey for the first time, and I’m not a batboy.’ “
Tony Jr.’s first at bat as a pinch-hitter – a ground out to first base – was more like Tony Sr.’s second night in the big leagues when he went 0-for-4 against Carlton. Tony Jr.’s first at bat was against Brandon Webb, Arizona’s All-Star pitcher, who won 7-1 that night to improve to 10-3.
“I hit it hard, especially for as much as his ball was moving that night,” Gwynn said. “I got in a good swing.”
Does he sound like a chip off the old block, analyzing every swing, or what?
Two-and-a-half weeks after his call-up he started his first game. He played center field, led off and was 2-for-4 with an RBI. After Sunday’s 7-1 loss at St. Louis when he grounded out in a pinch-hit appearance, he’s batting .467 (7-of-15).
Anthony Keith Gwynn Jr. was called Anthony Gwynn all through Poway High as a basketball and baseball star, as an All-American baseball player at San Diego State and last year at Double A Hunstville, Ala.. But unbeknownst to Tony Jr., the Nashville media relations department started the 2006 season listing him as Tony Gwynn.
The familiar name stuck in Nashville as he hit .396 in May – he was the Brewers’ Minor League Player of the Month – and was hitting .307 with 24 steals when he was called up. The Brewers, on their website, also list him simply as Tony Gwynn.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” said Tony Jr., with a voice and ready laugh that sounded a lot like his dad’s.
Tony Gwynn Jr. is as comfortable in his own skin as he is with the name on his jersey. You can’t be swinging as free and easy if you’re feeling the weight of the baseball world on your back. That’s the difference between knowing your father as your dad more than as a famous baseball player.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. Send a letter to the editor.