Commentary

It's déjà vu all over again in San Diego

Tony (don't call him Junior) Gwynn at ease following in his famous father's footsteps

Updated: July 1, 2009, 1:12 PM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN.com

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?" 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., 20-some miles north of Petco Park, 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 the ears of Anthony's mother:

"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 recalls, "and I said, 'Excuse me, he's not his dad, OK? 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, OK, 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.

[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn Jr., Tony Gwynn Sr.
AP Photo/Denis PoroyA very special Father's Day: Little T, left, gets a hug from Big T, who threw out the first pitch.
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 recorded every at-bat, took some tapes from his 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 ("6" in your scorebook) and third ("5").

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 the calls of Padres broadcasters 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 his mother 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 season, 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 by then. No one knew how he'd fare. In his debut game as a freshman, the season 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 OK," 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," Towers says. "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, 30½-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.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Hoffman
AP Photo/Morry GashSept. 29, 2007, in Milwaukee: Tony Gwynn helped spoil the Padres' season with his ninth-inning triple against Trevor Hoffman.
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-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?'"

Little T was stung. He told Alicia, "Maybe I'm not that good. Maybe I shouldn't play this game." She didn't like it. A former track star herself at San Diego State, she cracked, "Oh really? You're going to let these things trick you? After all this hard work, you're going to let it stop you?"

Before he could nod his head, she said, "Little Tony, when you learn to do you, you'll be fine. Do you. Be you. If you're a punch-and-judy hitter and punch-and-judy gets you to the big leagues, then be one. Your dad always did what he could do -- no more, no less. Your mechanics are horrible right now. Get back to what you were taught. You're out of whack. Be you. Do you."

So back he went to Nashville, the Brewers' Triple-A affiliate. Back he went carrying a Tony Gwynn signature bat.


The Padres were watching. One of their scouts happened to be a Gwynn -- not Tony, but Tony's younger brother, Chris -- and Chris says they wanted to know if Little T's shoulder, bat and psyche were recovering at Triple-A.

[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn Jr.
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziThere's no place like home: Little T, after almost six years in the Brewers organization, returned to San Diego on May 21.
Kevin Towers had long admired the kid and had tried to trade for him as far back as the 2007 regular season. Back then, Towers had been negotiating a deal to send pitcher Scott Linebrink to Milwaukee, and when he asked the Brewers about Little T, they called him untouchable. But he was touchable now, and Towers knew, whenever the timing was right, he could try again.

In 38 games this season for Nashville, Little T batted .309, scored 34 runs and showed up early every day for extra hitting. Big T commended him for not moping, for going about his business professionally. He was clearly back to being his father's son; it's just that no one knew it yet.

The Padres, at the time, seemed more preoccupied with trading pitcher Jake Peavy, to slash their payroll, and on May 20, thought they'd consummated a deal sending Peavy to the White Sox. But Peavy vetoed the trade the next day, leaving the team looking to cut costs elsewhere.

So the time was now. Towers offered outfielder Jody Gerut and his $1.775 million salary to Milwaukee for 26-year-old Little T and his half a mil.

And when the Brewers said yes, on the same day as Peavy's veto, owner John Moores called Alicia with the news.

Her caller ID showed a blocked number, so she almost didn't answer. But she picked up the phone and heard a man quickly say, "Alicia, your son's coming home."

"Who is this?"

"This is John."

"John who?"

"John Moores. Your son's coming home."

"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"

Soon, she was in tears and unable to speak. Moores told her he would leave her alone, and that's when she hung up and dialed Big T, who was in Fort Worth, Texas, about to coach San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament.

"Your son's been traded," she told him.

"To who?"

"The Padres."

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"

She says she'd never heard him that emotional, that "the way he yelled, if he could, his head would've hit the ceiling." She told him Little T didn't know yet, that they should let the Brewers tell him. Big T said, "Uh, you think I'm going to sit on this?"

So Big T found Little T in his Portland, Ore., hotel room -- where he'd just flown in from Nashville.

"Hey, Anthony, how you doing?"

"I'm fine, Dad, how are you?"

"Good. Anybody talked to you today? Anybody say anything to you?"

"Why?"

"Because you've been traded."

"To who?"

"To the Padreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees!"

The kid was on a flight to San Diego in 100 minutes.


The Padres were playing the Giants that night, so time was of the essence.

Alicia picked Little T up at the airport a little more than an hour before first pitch, leant him his dad's Mercedes-Benz and said she'd see him after the game.

"Wait a minute," he told her. "I don't know how to get to Petco Park."

"Go downtown," she told him. "You'll see it. Then, turn on Tony Gwynn Way."

Right then, the pressure should have kicked in. He'd be playing in the House That Tony Gwynn Built. There'd be a Tony Gwynn statue behind center field. There'd be Tony's retired No. 19 on top of center field. There'd be fans wearing Tony Gwynn's jersey, expecting a Tony Gwynn performance.

"Hey, do what your dad does!"

This had never been done before, nowhere else in baseball, not in 138 years of the major leagues. No Hall of Famer's son -- with the same name -- had ended up playing for the same team. Not Mickey Mantle Jr., not Roberto Clemente Jr., not anyone. Hall of Famer Yogi Berra had a son play for the Yankees, but it was Dale Berra, not Yogi Jr. People talk about Bobby and Barry Bonds playing for the Giants, and Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. playing for the Mariners and Reds. But those dads weren't Hall of Famers, and their kids were better, their kids were prodigies. The only thing comparable was Pete Rose Jr. playing 11 September games for Big Pete's Reds in 1997. But they were token appearances, all for show. This was real, and how Little T held it together on May 21 is inconceivable.

"I had flown about 12 hours in two days, and I think it helped me with my nerves," Little T says. "I was so jet-lagged, I didn't have any nerves."

When he and Towers spoke on the phone earlier that day, the GM's first question was, "You think Pops will let you break 19 out of retirement and wear it?" And Little T answered, "I'm not going there. That jersey belongs where it is right now. I'm not 19."

Instead, they gave him jersey No. 18 -- 19 minus 1. "They picked it for me," Little T says. He didn't mind; he was just glad to be there. And when the Padres asked him how he'd like to be announced, he didn't flinch.

Tony Gwynn, he told them. No Junior. Just Tony Gwynn.


A name doesn't make a ballplayer … or maybe it does. When Little T lost his "Junior,'' he gained a mindset. When he learned to do Tony -- Big Tony -- he gained a game plan. He may not have been wearing 19 in his Padres debut, but he thought 19.

The idea was to be patient at the plate, stay back and hit it where it was pitched. Easier said than done, but easier to him than most.

In his first at-bat on May 21, he pinch-hit in the bottom of the ninth with the Padres trailing 2-1 and a man on first. The P.A. announcer said, "Now batting … Tony Gwynn'' -- and seemingly everyone in the stadium stood up, except for Alicia. "I'm his mom; he needs to stand up for me," she says, laughing. The ovation lasted about 20 seconds, and about 180 seconds later, Little T was on first base after a five-pitch walk.

He had shown poise against Giants closer Brian Wilson, had taken several borderline pitches. Big T called Alicia's cell phone from Fort Worth complaining he couldn't queue up the broadcast online, and Alicia told him, "Well, he's standing on first base right now." Before long, he was scoring the winning run on a Scott Hairston base hit.

Big T was dying to see this in person. When he returned, he and Alicia drove to Petco and sat in the box of Moores' now ex-wife, Becky. And when Little T singled, Big T shouted, "That's my boy!"

"Are you for real?" Alicia asked.

"That's my boy," Big T said.

The same game, Little T was thrown out trying to steal third with two outs, a bonehead play.

"That's still my boy!" Big T shouted.

He was even more animated watching at home, living and dying on every at-bat. That first week, Alicia heard him yell at the TV set:

"What are you swinging at that pitch for?"

"Ah, he's trying to pull it!"

"Look at him. He's pull-happy. Booty in the dugout."

Big T wanted him thinking 5.5 hole, or the equivalent, and he began taping his son's at-bats the same way he used to tape his own. Not that he would hammer Little T with advice -- in fact, he'd wait for Little T to ask him -- but he wanted to be prepared if needed.

"Why you watching your at-bats again?" Alicia said to Big T one day, walking into his video room.

"It's not me, it's your son," Big T told her.

"Oh my Gawd, that swing looks just like you!" she said.

The fact was, the younger Gwynn was on a roll all by his lonesome. Manager Bud Black made him his permanent leadoff man/center fielder on May 30, and by June 9, the kid was batting a season-high .352. It got to the point that opposing scouts were high-fiving Chris Gwynn, and the surprise was that Little T was so breezy dealing with the pressure.

"Before, he was always stressed in his face," Alicia says. "But it's like the weight of the world is off of him now."

Says Little T: "Huge relief -- because it's home. It's a comfort level I've never experienced playing baseball. The people here have seen me grow up. I don't have any pressure to show them anything different."

He invited Big T to the Petco clubhouse, a place his dad had purposely tried to avoid. He asked him to come to his locker and the batting cage, and it dawned on Big T "that I was following him around the way he used to follow me. Then he cuts out to go to the field, and he's talking to the fans. They say, 'Hey, hey, hey,' and he's saying, 'I gotta go to work now, don't have time now. But I'll get you later.' And I'm just following him around like a little kid. It was hilarious."

To Big T, these were the greatest moment of his baseball life. Better than 3,000 hits. Better than the World Series homer at Yankee Stadium. Better than the Hall of Fame.

So he asked his son for a No. 18 jersey.


Next came the hard part -- staying over .300.

As Padres fans began to pore over the box scores, began getting accustomed to seeing .330 next to another Gwynn, the expectations rose incrementally. Towers scoffed at that and said, "He's one of these guys realistically that would have to really fall flat on his face. I mean, it's a Gwynn. He's not an easy guy, once he's a Padre, to kick out the door. I mean, we knew taking him on, this is probably not a short-term commitment. It's a long-term commitment. And I was certainly willing to roll the dice. I've always been a huge believer in blood lines."

But the truth was, this was a career .237 big league hitter, who had never played regularly in the big leagues. In his longest major league stretches in Milwaukee, he'd mostly platooned. He would have to adjust, to avoid a flame-out, and Big T knew it.

In Anaheim on June 13, on a night Big T was in the broadcast booth doing Padres TV, Angels starter Joe Saunders struck Little T out with inside heat and then got him to hook a ball harmlessly to first. It took all of Big T's willpower not to say, "Quit trying to pull this guy" into the microphone. But in Little T's third at-bat, he carved a ball to left-center for a triple, and Big T could be heard, on air, saying, "Take that!"

Little T began inviting his father down to watch batting practice almost every day at Petco, and it helped the kid stay in a groove. In fact, just this past Friday in Texas, entering play on June 26, his average was still .333. And then something big happened: Little T's first big league home run.

What a box score. With Scott Hairston off the disabled list, Little T had shifted over to right field that night, his father's position, and then he'd led off the game by pulling a ball over the right-field fence. San Diegans saw "Gwynn, RF'' in the paper the next morning and felt tingles.

But one person was fretting, and that person was Big T. His son had gone 0-for-4 after the home run that night, and home runs used to ruin Big T, too. He'd get greedy, he wouldn't stay back, he'd go into slumps.

Now it was happening to his own kid. By June 27, Little T's mini-slump was 1-for-9, his batting average down to .321. By June 28, it was 1-for-13, his batting average down to .310. By June 29, it was 1-for-17, his batting average down to .300. Damn those home runs.

They spoke on the phone, and Big T was ready for him. He'd taped the Texas at-bats, was willing to study them until the sun came up. They'd get in the cage soon at Petco; it was no problem. If anyone can correct a swing, and quick, it's Tony Gwynn and Tony Gwynn.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.