The most intriguing at-bat of 2007 is leaking into 2008. You can sense it by the way a 25-year-old wannabe struts through his February workouts. You can sense it by the way a 40-year-old shoulder shrugs at the line of questioning. You can sense it by the way a Hall of Famer is uncomfortably stuck in the middle. And you can sense it by the way a filthy rich man stares into space.
On Sept. 29, 2007, Tony Gwynn Jr., for all practical purposes, knocked Tony Gwynn Sr.'s team out of the playoffs. But it's much crueler than that. He did it with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth -- against his Uncle Trevor. He did it with the champagne on ice and the Colorado Rockies on life support. He did it against the franchise that clothed and fed him and against a fan base that, 81 days a year, walks down Tony Gwynn Drive to the turnstiles. He did it as the only son of San Diego's favorite son. And this is how he pays everyone back?
But to understand Sept. 29, 2007, you need to scoot back one day to Sept. 28.
That night, in a corridor of Miller Park in Milwaukee, Tony Gwynn Jr. asked San Diego Padres owner John Moores for a favor.
Wait until you hear it.
The most intriguing at-bat of 2007 has its roots in 1997. Back then, a boney 15-year-old kid named Anthony Gwynn, otherwise known as Little T, sat at the same locker every day in the Padres' clubhouse:
Not his dad's.
Virtually every game, Little T was with Hoffman, a relief pitcher whose work ethic knew no bounds. They had first met in 1993, back when Hoffman was a power pitcher, back when nobody outside of San Diego knew Trevor from Adam. But Little T knew him. Trevor would kneel down and ask him about his favorite TV shows and video games, and out of the blue one day, he even asked Little T if he wanted to play football in the outfield.
"Football?'' Little T asked.
"Football,'' Trevor said. "We stretch our arms out by tossing it around.''
They'd play passing games out there, and Little T would get two points if he caught a pass one-handed, and one point if he needed both hands. The pitcher treated the kid as an equal, and from that day on, Little T belonged to Trevor.
By 1997, you never saw one without the other. Little T would follow the pitcher to the warning track to shag flies, to the weight room to do curls, to the food room to eat gumbo. He'd study how Trevor stretched, how Trevor set up hitters, how Trevor iced his shoulder. They'd talk about girls, the Lakers and how to hit a changeup. Little T hung on every word.
Eventually, Little T went to San Diego State as a center fielder, and by 2003, was considered a legit major league prospect. The scouts liked his speed and his defense, but -- imagine this -- the son of the greatest hitter of this quarter century hadn't proven he could rake.
Still, the eager Padres had secretly planned to draft him with their second-round pick, 41st overall. They knew the whole town, including Trevor, would've gone nuts over it. But the Brewers, the spoilsport Brewers, picked Little T first, at No. 39 overall.
All over town, it was an oh-shucks moment, although Little T breathed a sigh of semi-relief. Part of him would've adored life as a Padre, but part of him wasn't ready for the madness. Part of him wasn't ready for the standing O's just because of his last name. What if he batted .250 instead of .350? What if he let the San Diego fans down? He couldn't live with himself.
He decided he was better off in the land of bratwurst, and during his early spring trainings, he'd always bump into Hoffman and thank him. He'd thank him for teaching him how to be a pro, for teaching him how to think, think, think along with the pitcher.
Maybe some day, he told Trevor, it'd all pay off.
The most intriguing at-bat of 2007 has its roots in a San Diego owner's suite.
Every night, after he'd leave Trevor in the clubhouse, Little T would climb a stadium ramp to see the Moores family. And then he'd raid their pregame spread.
He felt so at home there. His dad was always calling John Moores the best owner in baseball, and the reason was Moores' sentimental, philanthropic outlook on life. For instance, right after Moores bought the club in 1994, he waltzed into the clubhouse to invite Tony Sr. and his wife, Alicia, to his house for dinner. Tony said no. His owners in the past had been the eccentric Joan Kroc and the unmotivated Tom Werner, who'd staged an infamous fire sale, and Tony preferred to keep his distance. But Moores told him, "I don't want to hear that; you're coming.''
They rode over to the house together, and, for the first time in his career, Tony Sr. actually heard an owner ask him, "How can I make your life easier?" Tony gulped, and let it out. He asked for a more integrated spring training, with minor and major leaguers mingling together. He asked for open dialogue with the front office. And he asked for team babysitters, so the wives could watch games in peace.
"Oh, you have kids?'' Moores said.
"A daughter and a son,'' Tony said.
"What's your son's name?'' Moores asked.
"Little T,'' said Big T.
So that's how the introductions went, and before long, Little T became a regular in the Moores' private box, the Moores' private home and the Moores' private jet. The Moores flew Little T and Alicia to Cleveland for the 1997 All-Star Game, and to myriad other big games. According to Moores, Tony Sr. and Alicia were nervous flyers, whereas Little T always enjoyed the small, sleek Leer jet. On many of the trips, Little T would bond with Moores' daughter, Jennifer, and all of them became trustworthy friends.
"I don't know if it's because my dad was who he was, but they just kind of gravitated toward us,'' Little T says of the Moores. "Their whole family and our whole family, we kind of gravitated toward each other, really.''
The Moores simply had a soft spot for Big T. They were ringside for his 3,000th hit in Montreal in 1999, when Tony singled off a low, diving pitch that seemed unhittable. They built a ballpark at Tony's alma mater, San Diego State, on one condition -- it had to be named Tony Gwynn Stadium. They built Petco Park and made its street address 19 Tony Gwynn Drive. They built a life-sized Tony Gwynn statue and lit it up at night 365 days a year. They retired Tony's jersey No. 19 and presented him with a new Mercedes. They gave Tony a personal services contract. They even had their lieutenant, Sandy Alderson, ask Tony if he wanted to interview for the Padres' managerial job when Bruce Bochy left following the 2006 season. Tony declined, feeling he needed to manage in the minors first, but he appreciated the gesture, appreciated John Moores.
"Well, it's difficult to think we ever would've bought the Padres without Tony being there,'' Moores says. "Tony Gwynn is truly iconic. People outside Southern California can't imagine what it's like. He can't leave his house without someone telling him how much he meant to them. He's like their family.''
And that's why Moores has held numerous "Tony Gwynn Days'' in San Diego. But the best Tony Gwynn Day of all, the one people talk about, was the day in 2002, when the Padres brought back the entire starting lineup from Tony's first-ever game in 1982.
All the old-timers marched out onto the field, in uniform, and were sent to their original positions around the diamond, just to shock Tony. One by one, they were announced. But wait a minute, who was that kid playing the part of Tony in the outfield? Who was out there wearing Tony's old taco Padre uniform?
The crowd went bonkers.
They loved him, too.
The most intriguing at-bat of 2007 has its roots in a simple handshake.
It was May 25 of last season, and the Brewers came to town with a young, wide-eyed rookie named … Anthony Gwynn. The kid arrived with -- it's true -- a .350 batting average, and it was clear now he did know how to rake.
Coming home was a thrill for the kid. And hours before the first game of the series, Little T peered out of the dugout, took a deep breath and looked for you-know-who: Trevor.
Hoffman was where he always is: in the outfield running, stretching, grinding. Eventually, he and the kid laid eyes on each other, and the exchange was priceless.
"He shook my hand and told me how proud he was of me, to see me up here, told me, 'Congratulations,'" Little T says. "I was like, 'Man, I've officially arrived in the big leagues.' I was like, 'Man, Trevor just told me how proud he was of me.' The only person that could've meant more hearing that from was my dad.''
That first game, Little T strode to the plate and heard a raucous round of applause, almost unheard of for an opposing player. "Seriously, he got like a mini standing ovation,'' Big T says. "They were like, 'That's Little Tony! We saw him shagging balls here!'"
And in return, Little T turned into the perfect guest: He kept making outs. Through the first 26 innings of the series, he was 0-for-8, and had a particularly rough time seeing the ball against Jake Peavy on the night of the third game. But then Peavy exited with a 3-0 lead, and out of the bullpen, to the sounds of AC/DC's "Hells Bells," came you-know-who again: Hoffman.
Hoffman recorded the first two outs of the ninth, lickety-split, and then up stepped the other you-know-who: Little T.
The kid says he wasn't nervous, that he just wanted to scrape out any sort of a hit. Instead, the tension and the wide eyes belonged to baseball's all-time saves leader, who admitted later that as soon as he saw Little T at the plate, his heart was in his esophagus.
"It was something unlike I've ever experienced in the game,'' Hoffman told reporters that night. "I'm staring down the barrel, trying not to look at him, and all I could think about was my [own three] little guys now, playing in the outfield, and thinking that's where we started.''
It was a surreal moment. With Big T standing with Moores in Moores' private box, Trevor could only gulp and get on with it. He threw consecutive fastballs, eschewing his money changeup, and when he fired a third fastball, Little T lined it viciously to the outfield for a single.
"I'm standing up, shouting, 'Yeah, that's my boy!'" Big T says. "But I did it in John's box, so nobody could see me.''
Trevor regrouped, got the final out, and everyone went home thrilled. The Padres had won, and Little T had his hit. It'd been harmless. Absolutely harmless.
A lot of San Diego fans wished Little T belonged to them, and curiously, as the season morphed into summer, there was an interesting phone call between Brewers GM Doug Melvin and Padres GM Kevin Towers. Milwaukee wanted pitching help, and inquired about set-up man Scott Linebrink, a free-agent-to-be who'd fallen into a rut. They asked what it would take to get him, and Towers mentioned the G word: Gwynn.
"The kid's name came up in conversations,'' Towers admits. "Doug basically said, 'He's not untouchable, but it'd be tough for us to move him.'"
Instead, Melvin gave the Padres three young pitchers for Linebrink, and both teams moved on with their pennant races. In fact, the two squads were scheduled to meet again the last weekend of the season, in bratwurst land, and maybe, just maybe, that final series would be huge. Wouldn't that be something?
Sure enough, four months passed, and that's what happened. The Padres came to Milwaukee for a four-game series, on Sept. 27, 2007, with a one-game wild-card lead over the Mets, Phillies and Rockies, while trailing the D-backs by one game in the NL West. The Brewers, on the other hand, trailed the Cubs by two games in the NL Central. So they were all must-win games, and Little T found himself immersed in it. He was a middle-inning replacement in the series opener, going 0-for-2 in a 9-5 Padres victory. The following night, Sept. 28, he lined out hard in the fifth as a pinch hitter -- his average down to .254 -- and watched helplessly in the ninth as Trevor earned the save, eliminating the Brewers.
So that was that. The Padres' magic number was one, and the Brewers were no longer relevant. Little T mingled afterward with his dad, who had broadcast the game on San Diego TV, and he bumped into Moores, his wife Becky and their daughter Jennifer in a stadium corridor. There were pats on the back and small talk. And that's when Little T asked the Padres' owner for a favor. A favor that, at the time, seemed awfully, awfully tame:
"Can I have a ride home on your plane after Sunday's game?''
"Of course,'' Moores answered. "Why not?''
The most intriguing at-bat of 2007 arrived like an unexpected baby.
It was a Saturday day game, televised nationally by Fox, and Big T didn't even go. He had to drive Alicia from Milwaukee to Chicago that morning -- so she could catch a nonstop flight back to San Diego -- and he didn't return to his hotel until the eighth inning. He flipped on the TV, saw the Padres held a 3-2 lead and had no idea if Little T had already pinch hit or not.
The bottom of the ninth began, and out of the San Diego bullpen trotted Trevor. He'd recorded 42-of-47 saves on the year, and with the Padres just three outs away from the postseason, he had an obvious bounce in his step. The first batter was Prince Fielder, who earlier in the week had hit his 50th home run, but Fielder could not read Trevor's changeup, and whiffed. Next up was Corey Hart, who got behind 1-2. But he timed another changeup perfectly and ripped a double to left.
By now, Trevor, for whatever reason, was only throwing one pitch: his Bugs Bunny changeup. A Brewer was now in scoring position, and when manager Ned Yost sent up the slumping Laynce Nix to pinch hit, Big T figured Little T had already batted. Nix struck out on three straight nasty changes, but then Big T heard a strange roar. And then heard his own name announced: Gwynn.
Everyone in San Diego stopped breathing. Little T was facing Trevor with two outs and a runner on second. Fox cameras flashed a shot of John, Becky and Jennifer Moores, and they looked stunned. Fox flashed a shot of Padres fans watching on a Jumbotron at 19 Tony Gwynn Drive, and they looked stunned. Trevor looked stunned. And guess what else: Little T looked stunned.
"It freaked me out,'' Little T says. "I had gone through it all in the on-deck circle. I was just thinking, 'Man, I have a chance to ruin their season right now. And in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, 'Man, that'd be great, but I've got to go home to that city, too.'''
Little T stepped into the batter's box, but then rushed right back out.
"I was like, 'Hold up, I can't hit like this,'" he says. "I was like, 'Let me stop, regroup.' I stepped back in, and the next thing that went across my mind was, 'Man, I've seen Trevor trick people so many times after throwing so many changeups. He'll suddenly throw three fastballs right by you.' So I did not want that to be me. I was not going to get beat by a fastball, that's all I knew.''
He had a perspective no other Brewer had, and maybe no other baseball player had. He'd lived and breathed Trevor Hoffman for 14 years. He'd caught footballs from the man. He knew his mind-set, his delivery, his routine, his pattern, his thought process, his wife, his kids, his cars. Trevor had basically taught him how to hit him.
The first pitch came, and Little T sat on a fastball, hoping he could stay back if it was a changeup. And it was a changeup, inside, for Ball 1. He was thankful he'd seen it clearly out of Trevor's hand, so he felt confident enough to think fastball first again. The next pitch, another changeup, dipped late, and Little T couldn't check his swing. Strike 1. The third pitch was another change that traveled only 59 feet, and Little T did hold back this time. The count: 2-1.
He continued to think fastball first, even though -- according to his calculations -- Trevor had now thrown 10 straight changeups. Soon, the fourth pitch was on its way -- another changeup -- and this time Little T didn't have a chance. Swung right through it.
"I thought I had waited on it forever!'' he says. "And I was still out in front of it by two feet. I'm like, 'OK, it's 2 and 2, there's a good chance he's going to throw that again, but you can't get beat by the fastball. Don't go back to this dugout with a strikeout, because you got beat by a heater.''
And then, for the 12th straight time, Trevor launched another changeup. It was a diving, unhittable pitch, about ankle high. Go back and watch Big T's 3,000th hit in Montreal, and it was almost the same low, leave-it-alone anvil. But just like Big T, Little T took a whack at it -- and slammed it into the right-field corner …
We take you to Big T's hotel room, where there was a loud, sudden thud. "That was me, jumping out of my chair,'' Big T says. "I was yelling. I know everybody on that floor must've heard me, because I was like, 'Yeah! Yeah! Nobody thought he could get a hit. Yeah!' I called Alicia's cell and left her a message: 'Ahhhhhhhhhhhh! Your son tied the gaaaaaaame! He tied the gaaaaaaame!' When she got off the plane and got my message, she said, 'I've never heard you that excited.' And I said, 'Well, he stood in there, and busted them up.'"
We take you to John Moores, sitting in the stands at Miller Park. He acts as if he is going to slam his hands down, but instead he reaches for his head, as if he's afraid it might burst.
We take you to his wife, Becky, who looks at John and says: "Oh [expletive].''
We take you to Trevor, who is absolutely unreadable.
We take you to Little T, who slides head-first into third base for a triple, sending the game into extra innings. He pumps his fist. It is the hit of his life, and two innings later, the Brewers go ahead and win it 4-3.
We take you to the Padres' clubhouse, where John Moores finds Hoffman in a corner, weeping. "He was devastated, and I went over and told him, 'You're the greatest pitcher we've ever had,'" Moores says. "And he was pretty emotional about that. He wanted to win that game more than anybody. He was bawling. He wasn't just crying; he was bawling. It was probably the most upset I've seen somebody in a baseball clubhouse. Usually, you see someone that emotional after a game, you think it's someone you can't depend on. But obviously, we can depend on Trevor. I love the guy.''
We take you to a phone call from Jennifer Moores to Big T later that night.
"Tell Anthony he's walking back to San Diego,'' she said. "Sorry.''
The most intriguing at-bat of 2007 started a freefall.
The next day, Sept. 30, the Padres -- whose magic number was still one -- took a 3-0 first-inning lead and then frittered it away. Manager Bud Black chose not to start ace Jake Peavy on short rest, and the pitching staff got blistered, 11-6.
Big T did the broadcast for San Diego TV, and Little T's hit was the elephant in the room all day. Big T -- Mr. Padre himself -- only talked about it early in the telecast, saying he obviously was rooting for his own flesh and blood, but that the Padres had chances to win it after the triple. "Last I checked, it only tied the game,'' he would say later.
Clearly, the team was reeling, and next up was a one-game, winner-take-all wild-card playoff in Colorado. As planned, the Moores were flying first back to San Diego, and they waited awkwardly for Little T, who was slow getting dressed after Sunday's game. You can imagine the thoughts going through the Moores' heads.
"I'm confident that we talked about leaving Anthony behind at the ballpark,'' Moores says, laughing. "Which would've been a lot of fun.''
He can chuckle about it now -- or, at least, sometimes he can -- but the limo ride over to the airport that Sunday was almost macabre.
"Well, I wanted to be on that flight, because my wife was having a baby pretty soon, like within the week,'' Little T says. "I wanted to get home. After Saturday's game, the Moores told me I couldn't come, and even though they were just joking, they wore me out in the ride to the airport. They were just on me about getting a hit. They wanted me to strike out. He was like, 'You know what, we're happy for you, we're happy you got the hit, but we'd have rather you grounded out, struck out, flew out, anything but get a hit in that situation.'
"Yeah, they were joking. Yeah, they were busting my chops. But I think John was more serious than anybody else. And I can completely understand where he was coming from. … Honestly, there was a part of me that felt guilty. And I can't explain why I felt guilty, but there was a part of me that did. And trust me, I was pulling for them to win that playoff game.''
On the flight, Little T was joined by Alderson and special assistant Paul DePodesta, and he tried sneaking his way past all of them to the rear of the jet. From time to time, they'd razz him, and Moores, in particular, told him, "You had an unfair advantage -- you've been scouting Trevor for 15 years.'' Overall, the mood was somber, and so, at one point, Little T felt compelled to blurt out: "I really feel bad about this.''
Everyone lost it.
"We all just started dying laughing,'' Moores says. "It was utterly absurd. He'll be proud of that hit 'til the day he dies, and he should be. Utterly absurd.''
And with that, Little T did the only thing he could: He fell asleep for the rest of the flight.
The most intriguing at-bat of 2007 has traveled West.
On the morning of Oct. 1, the day of the Padres' one-game playoff in Denver, a UPS delivery man dropped off a package at Little T's house … and wagged a finger.
"Ah, why did you have to do it to us, Tony?'' the UPS guy said.
That night's game only exacerbated matters. Trevor blew a two-run lead in the 13th inning, and the Padres were officially done. Moores says he again found Hoffman sobbing in the clubhouse, but sensed Trevor "had been more emotional that previous time in Milwaukee.'' Being one strike away. Throwing a good, sinking pitch. Having the child of one of your former teammates crush it. All of that was too much to take.
And in the nearly five months that have passed, it lingers for all of them …
We take you to Moores, who has daily moments of being catatonic -- because he still feels his pitching-rich Padres could've reached the World Series. "I'm getting to the point I can get through a couple hours a day without thinking about it,'' he says. "And I'm hopeful in about a year, I can make it a whole day. But right now I'm only in my fifth month of recovery. I mean, of all people, Anthony Gwynn? Not possible.''
We take you to Big T, who is stuck as the middle man. He arrived in Colorado in October 2007 to broadcast the Rockies-Phillies playoff series for TNT, and the first person he saw, Todd Helton, told him to thank Little T.
"You'll get a standing O in Colorado next year,'' Big T told his son later. "They're gonna build you a statue.''
We take you to Trevor, who has spent this winter in relative hiding. When approached for interviews in the offseason, he bit his lip and hoped to avoid the subject of his two catastrophes. But he's also a stand-up guy, and he told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "Any human would dwell on something like that. It was a pretty magnified incident on a big stage. The outcome is what it is. And not once, but twice.
"It still hurts. I know what happened. I've played it over in my mind. I've seen the video, although I don't have it on file. It serves no real purpose to watch it anymore.''
He also had surgery this winter at age 40 to clean up his elbow, but people around town are more concerned about his head. They wonder: Will he ever recover? Is he done? "Oh, he'll save 40 or 50 games this year,'' Moores says.
And lastly, we take you to Little T, who has spent the offseason absolutely beaming. Not long after the year concluded, the Brewers' video director sent him a DVD of his season highlights and entitled it: "Milwaukee Brewer 2007 Hitting, Bunting, Fielding, Stealing and Padre Killing.'' The kid just couldn't live the triple down. He'd go out in San Diego, and people would seriously ask him, "Why didn't you strike out against Hoffman? Why didn't you make an out on purpose?''
But all it's done is fuel him. He has lifted and run and hit and grinded all winter -- the way Trevor taught him to -- and he's determined to start in Milwaukee's outfield this season, even though the Brewers have signed Mike Cameron -- an ex-Padre, of all people. Little T says he watched the tape of his Trevor at-bat every day for "a good two months'' -- his favorite part being Becky Moores' "Oh [expletive]!'' -- and he will now try to carry it over into 2008, 2009, 2010 and beyond.
But there's just one small thing he's worried about:
He has to play a game this coming season at 19 Tony Gwynn Drive.
The fans may viciously boo him. Or the Padres may not pitch to him. Or, if they're smart, they'll trade for him.
The most intriguing at-bat of 2007 is … to be continued.
Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.