Tony Gwynn Jr. fitting in with Dodgers
Forgive Tony Gwynn Jr. if he doesn't get all mushy about what awaits this weekend. It isn't like this will be the first time he will have played a major league game in his hometown, a city that still claims his father as its most beloved athlete. To Gwynn, this is nothing more than a three-game block on the schedule for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team he joined as a free agent last winter even though he really wasn't supposed to become eligible for free agency for several years to come.
As he relaxed in the clubhouse in Denver on Wednesday morning, a couple of hours before the Dodgers would fall 7-5 to the Colorado Rockies in front of 22,595 at frigid Coors Field, the son of San Diego's favorite son was pretty matter-of-fact about the fact his new team would begin a series with the Padres on Friday night at Petco Park.
"I'm really looking at it as just another series," he said. "Earlier in my career, with Milwaukee, it meant a lot more. At this point, it's not that big a deal. It's just another game. I would love to go in there and have a great series, no question about it. But at the end of the day, these are just games we need to win."
But ask Gwynn if he would like to show the Padres a thing or two after they non-tendered him last winter rather than going to arbitration with him -- the ultimate insult in a town where his family name is royalty -- and you get a radically different answer.
"I think any player has that in the back of his head," Gwynn said. "I would be lying if I said I didn't want just a little bit to show them I belong."
Gwynn's salary last year was a modest $419,800, not that far above the major league minimum, and his .204 batting average only enhanced his reputation as a defensive specialist who didn't inherit much of his father's hitting skills. He had missed a month late in the season with a broken bone in his right hand, and he was arbitration-eligible for the first time, so he didn't figure to get much of a raise even if the Padres had stuck with him.
For whatever reason, though, Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, who had just completed his first full year on the job, opted to let Gwynn go. Gwynn wound up signing with the Dodgers for one year and $675,000, but the Padres' decision still burns him to some extent.
"Of course it bothered me," Gwynn said. "I would be lying if I said it didn't bother me. It bothered me a lot. But you have to look at the circumstances, a new GM and I didn't do my part. I didn't play well. But I consider myself a man of faith, and I believe God had a different plan for me."
And, well, so did Hoyer, whose plan was pretty simple: Gwynn would no longer be a member of the Padres. Decisions to non-tender players tend to be primarily financial, but it's tough to definitively say that about Gwynnn simply because he wasn't a high-priced player.
"Honestly, I don't know," Gwynn said. "It could have been. That is one of those things you would have to ask Jed. I would hope not. I would hope it's based on performance. But you know how this game works. It very well could have been a little bit of that."
Beyond candidly answering interview questions, though, Gwynn has moved on, both literally and figuratively. Outgoing and likeable, he has fit easily into the fabric of the Dodgers' clubhouse. He further endeared himself to his new teammates with a spectacular defensive play in left field on Tuesday night in which he barehanded a hard carom off the left-field wall on a ball hit by the Rockies' Todd Helton, turned and fired a strong, two-hop throw to second base to nail Helton trying for a double.
Results-wise, Gwynn is off to a slow start offensively, batting .200, but he says the endless hours he spent in spring training working with the large cast of hitting coaches the Dodgers had in camp have him in a good place at the plate and, in theory, better able to use his superior speed.
"They really helped me make some strides here," he said. "Even though I have 10 at-bats and only two hits, I feel a lot better than I did this time last year, and my confidence level is much higher. We have worked on my swing path a lot, on getting a higher swing path so I'm on top of the ball so I can better utilize my game. That way, I can use my legs more instead of hitting the ball in the air."
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Gwynn may have put the Padres behind him, but he remains a San Diego guy. He still lives there and still loves the city as much as ever, a love affair that might have been enhanced by the fact Gwynn says he never felt the pressure one would naturally assume would go along with growing up in San Diego, playing baseball in San Diego and being Tony Gwynn's son in San Diego.
"For me, I never really looked at it as pressure," he said. "I always just looked at it as the fact my dad was who he was. There might have been a little bit when I started playing professionally, but after about 20 games of that, I got used to it. It is what it is. It was kind of like putting your pants on -- you just do it and you don't think about it."
Gwynn credits much of that to the fact he was so well-known around town as a promising prep player at Poway High School and as a collegian at San Diego State, where his dad took over as head coach before his junior season. It was Jim Dietz -- who preceded Tony Sr. as the Aztecs' coach and was there so long that he actually coached both Tony Sr. and his brother Chris Gwynn before coaching Tony Jr. as a freshman and sophomore -- who initially ordered that Tony Jr. be called by his given name of Anthony just to relieve some of the expectations.
"I got to college, and the first game I played as Tony Gwynn Jr., I was 0-for-4," Gwynn said. "So Coach Dietz decided to change it to Anthony Gwynn. It never really bothered me one way or the other. After that, I really never went back. It just kind of took on a life of its own. Even when I was drafted [by the Brewers in the second round in 2003], it was as Anthony Gwynn. After that, people kept asking me, 'Is it Anthony or Tony?' Everybody called me Tony, so I just said, 'Let's just go with Tony."'
Even when the Brewers traded him to the Padres two years ago, Gwynn said he always felt free to be the player he was, a speed-and-defense guy who probably wouldn't ever win one of those batting titles his father seemed to bring home almost annually.
"I think the good part about going to San Diego was that I had been around that area so much," Gwynn said. "People saw me play in high school and college, and they knew what they were getting. They didn't expect to see Tony Gwynn Sr. come out and play, so I didn't have to worry about living up to my dad's legacy. That is why the transition was so easy for me."
Gwynn is making another transition now. Other than the chance to hopefully play one game in front of his father -- the Aztecs have a three-game series at home with Utah this weekend, but a day game on Saturday should allow Gwynn Sr. to catch most of a Dodgers-Padres game that starts at 5:30 p.m. at Petco -- these are, as Gwynn Jr. said, nothing more than the next three games on the schedule, and they aren't circled in red.
Still, if the opportunity presents itself to do some damage to his former team, the team to which his family name will be forever, inexorably linked, well, all the better.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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