SAN DIEGO–Tony Gwynn heard his cue, got out of his chair and went to the podium to receive his award.
How quaint, he probably thought. A bat made into a trophy. Never seen that one.
The only thing that showed, though, was Gwynn’s winning smile from underneath his new San Diego State cap–the one with the Aztecs’ new politically correct logo. No more Aztec warrior head, no matter how much money and how many graphic designers had changed the mascot in the past. The new hat has a stylized SDS with an arrow driven through it. (To be honest, Gwynn’s not a big fan of the arrow.)
It was a relatively new cap because Gwynn has a relatively new job, and that’s why he was at the podium. Sure, he was accepting a kind of lifetime achievement award, but this one was coming from the American Baseball Coaches Association. Now that Gwynn’s a college coach, the ABCA convention in San Diego was just the kind of place where he’s supposed to be.
Gwynn waited for the applause to die down and just started talking, off-the-cuff remarks that started with thanks for the honor. But he veered off into coach-speak, which probably was music to the ears of his peers in the audience.
“I want to apologize for my attire, but I’m a coach now–I just came from giving a clinic, and I’ve got to meet with some season-ticket holders right after I leave here,” Gwynn says in his trademark nasal voice. “This is what I do now, and I’m just loving every minute of it.”
If you don’t believe him, just go watch him work. The day before the awards luncheon, sitting in the dugout at Tony Gwynn Stadium on the campus of San Diego State, Gwynn was already antsy for the first practice of the spring to begin. He had arrived early for a photo shoot with his son Anthony, the best player on his first Aztecs team, but couldn’t stop checking the dugout tunnel for players, for a sign that practice was about to start.
“For me, being retired (from playing) and getting to be at home every evening, it’s great,” he says. “I’ve learned so much about my daughter (Anisha), and I’ve learned a lot about Anthony. For me, just being home after so many years out on the road, it’s been great.
“I don’t know how great it’s been for them, though,” he guffaws. “I’ve probably been a big ol’ pain in the butt.”
Anthony smiles and laughs along with his dad. Where else would he be? He’s a college junior, playing for his famous dad in the ballpark bearing his father’s name. It’s their turn to share some father-son moments on the baseball diamond. They both intend to savor it.
Dad’s the future Hall of Famer with the eye-popping stats–3,141 hits, career .338 average, nearly 1,400 runs and five Gold Glove Awards, not to mention a large hand in both of the Padres’ National League pennants.
Son Anthony is the apple that didn’t fall far from the tree. He’s an outfielder with an uncanny knack for hitting, and he just so happens to love basketball almost as much as his dad, the former San Diego State point guard. He’s also a preseason All-American after two solid years with the Aztecs and a strong performance in the Cape Cod League last summer.
Together, they’re charged with returning San Diego State to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. But Anthony likely will be gone after 2003; the junior is a possible first-round pick. Tony, on the other hand, is working to convince people that he’s in college coaching for the long haul.
“The biggest thing is to hear it from the man himself,” assistant coach Rusty Filter says. “People outside the program try to use that against us (in recruiting), that he’s not going to stay here, but here’s what I tell people: This is a guy who had a lot of options.
“He could be doing a lot of other things. He’s got great communication skills and relates well to people, and he chose to do this. That shows every day. He’s a college coach now.”
It just so happens that the coach’s best player is his son. Anthony was a 33rd-round pick of the Braves in 2000 out of suburban Poway High, but his low draft position made his decision to attend San Diego State a relatively easy one. A broken hand interrupted his freshman season, though he still hit .318 with 19 stolen bases while learning the college game.
Then came his sophomore season, with more expectations (he was a preseason second-team All-American) and a new guy on the coaching staff: his dad. Tony spent 2002 as a volunteer assistant, learning the ropes of the college game during the final season of Jim Dietz’ 31-year tenure.
For Anthony, having his father around every day presented something of an adjustment. After all, Anthony was born Oct. 4, 1982, at the end of his Tony’s rookie year in the majors. But imagine the adjustment for his teammates, who went from being fans of Mr. Padre to having him stand behind the protective net while throwing them batting practice.
“Last year, there was some awe,” Anthony says. “I think some of the guys were scared to talk to him about hitting because he’s Tony Gwynn. This year, it’s a lot different. Guys are a year further along in college and everyone is a lot more comfortable around him.
|Tony Gwynn is the most famous former big leaguer now coaching at the Division I level of college baseball, but there are 12 others with big league playing experience that are doing so as well. The complete list:|
|Arkansas State||Keith Kessinger|
|Brigham Young||Vance Law|
|New Orleans||Randy Bush|
|San Diego State||Tony Gwynn|
|Texas-San Antonio||Sherman Corbett|
|William & Mary||Jim Farr|
|Wright State||Ron Nischwitz|
“Even the freshmen have picked up on it. They don’t know any better, and they see the other guys talking to him, so they just picked up on that and haven’t been scared. The adjustment period is definitely over. I think everybody realizes we’ve got it real good to have him.”
No doubt his father realizes how good the Aztecs have got it to have Anthony patrolling center field. Major league scouting directors voted him a first-team preseason All-American this year after Anthony batted .291-0-14 for Brewster in the Cape Cod League last summer. Gwynn added 11 stolen bases, scored 20 runs and played a superlative center field.
“I saw him as a freshman,” one American League scouting director said. “Whenever you go to see the son of a future Hall of Famer, you have preconceived notions. I don’t want to say I was disappointed. I went back when he was a sophomore and I gained a real appreciation for Gwynn.
“He played the game with intelligence; he played the game hard. Sometimes his tools didn’t show up on the stopwatch, but he closed ground and took charge in the outfield. What I was expecting was more tools that knocked you off your feet; instead (here was) a guy who is just a real good baseball player whose tools are starting to show up. He could be a special kind of player.”
Like his father, who played point guard for the Aztecs for four seasons and still holds school records, Anthony thought about doubling up and playing basketball in college as well, but decided to keep his focus on books and baseball. His focus helped him play recruiter for the Aztecs this fall. When Alabama booted its top hitter, Peter Stonard, from the team for violating university policy, Stonard got his release and started looking for a new school for his junior season.
“I met him in the Cape,” Anthony says of Stonard, who led the summer league in batting while hitting .348-2-27 for Cotuit, adding 18 stolen bases. “When his name came up as a guy who could be transferring, my dad and Rusty asked me what kind of player he was. I said he was one of the best players on the Cape, if not the best.”
Here, his father interjects, “No, we said, ‘Do you know about this guy, Stonard?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, Petey.’ ” This cracked Tony up, and Anthony added a joke of his own: “I told them he was the second-best center fielder on the Cape.”
Stonard instantly adds a premier bat to the Aztecs lineup and will play either second base or shortstop. He and Anthony should form one of the nation’s best top-of-the-order combinations. Tony is still getting a handle on what kind of player Stonard is, but after watching his son for a year as a volunteer, he knows what he has there.
“When I played, I couldn’t see him on an everyday basis, but now I’ve seen it all and seen how he works and what he can do,” Gwynn says. “He’s got a knack for putting the bat on the ball, but he’s gotten bigger and stronger as well. His instincts are what set him apart for me. I’d say he was our best player whether I was his dad or not, but the guys on the team definitely feed off him and look to him as a leader.”
Seeing his son every day is just one part of the adjustment for the elder Gwynn. Instead of breaking down his own swing on video and lugging around his own VCR on the road, Gwynn had a state-of-the-art video editing system installed in the press box of the ballpark. He would spend as much time as possible up there helping his players if the NCAA would allow it, but of course there are time limitations on practice, and these players have classes to attend.
“Everything we do is based off the information in that NCAA handbook–I’m trying to get as familiar with it as I can,” he says. “It tells us whether you can work with your whole team or four guys or two guys and for how long. It has taken me a while to get used to it, but those are the rules and that’s how we’re going to do things.
“I know I’m going to be scrutinized a little more because some people think I have an unfair advantage because I played in the big leagues and I’m on TV. I’m going to rely on my assistant coaches to help me out there.”
NCAA director of baseball operations Dennis Poppe said Gwynn would not be allowed to do television commentary for college baseball games, but he’s not precluded from continuing his work with ESPN, which used Gwynn for nearly 40 broadcasts last year including games and “Baseball Tonight” work. Gwynn won’t broadcast games while he’s coaching this season, but might pop over to Qualcomm Stadium to work a game or two after the season is over.
But that’s only when he’s not out recruiting. Gwynn realizes he has a veteran team on hand and that even if the Aztecs end their regional drought, it will take more than one good year to prove to people that the program is back.
The drought almost resulted in the firing of Dietz, who was Gwynn’s college coach from 1979-81, when Gwynn hit .398. A frequent criticism of the Dietz program was its inability to keep or even recruit local San Diego products from leaving for other schools.
In fact, Dietz frequently preferred players like Travis Lee, a 1996 All-American, who were from the Pacific Northwest, where Dietz had gotten his coaching start. Gwynn wants to reverse the trend, especially in a city that has produced recent college (and big league) talents such as UCLA’s Troy Glaus, Cal State Fullerton’s Adam Johnson and Southern California’s Jacque Jones, Mark Prior and Barry Zito.
“Tony has already made an immediate impact on the recruiting side of college baseball–San Diego State’s (2004) class is one of the strongest in the country,” says UC Irvine coach John Savage, a former recruiting coordinator at USC. “Tony’s presence and reputation have already made an impact. I believe with Tony’s commitment to the program, the future is very bright for San Diego State. San Diego has always been a hotbed for college and professional players, and I am sure with Tony every potential player will be interested.”
Judging by the talk in San Diego at the ABCA convention, every college coach is interested in what Gwynn is doing with the Aztecs. After all, the list of big leaguers going back to campus is a shifting lot that has taken some hits in the last two or three years.
Ex-Oriole Paul Blair ended his experiment at Coppin State, where his teams won 35 games in five years. Maryland fired Tom Bradley, Kansas let go of Bobby Randall and Michigan parted ways with Geoff Zahn. Arkansas State’s Bill Bethea retired, while Louisiana Tech’s Jeff “Whitey” Richardson resigned in the offseason. None of those coaches had Gwynn’s stature as a player.
Gwynn isn’t the first high-profile big leaguer to go back to campus, but he’s the first in a while. Eddie Stanky coached for years at South Alabama, and Enos Slaughter did the same at Duke. Prior to World War II, ex-big leaguers such as the New York Giants’ Fred Lindstrom (Northwestern) and the Red Sox’ Smokey Joe Wood (Yale), had lengthy college coaching careers.
But no one like Gwynn, a star from baseball’s expansion, television and big-money era, has tried this.
Perhaps he’ll start a new trend. Third-year Brigham Young coach Vance Law, who hit .256 with 71 career homers in his 12-year big league career, used to be able to claim he had the best big league career of any active college coach. He’s glad to cede the title to Gwynn and to have him as competition in the rapidly improving Mountain West Conference.
“I think having Tony do well could help some more (big league) guys have a greater appreciation for college coaching,” Law says. “There’s room for guys who love the game. I have found that there are great coaches in college baseball. A lot of people in pro ball think they have all the answers, but just coming from the convention and the clinics I saw there, I can tell you a lot of college coaches have an awful lot to offer the game.
“I know it means a lot to Tony as it means a lot to me to be able to go back to your home and your family, while still staying close to the game. It’s a lot better to be home. I have five kids and wanted to be home. You know, it’s great to be able to go to piano recitals.”
Law and Gwynn share many of the same challenges. San Diego State won 43 games a year ago and won the Mountain West going away in the regular season, but after winning the first seven meetings with BYU, they lost twice to the Cougars (on their home field) in the conference tournament. And the league’s low Ratings Percentage Index helped keep the Aztecs, No. 81 on the RPI, at home for regional play.
“Guys were real (ticked) last year,” Anthony Gwynn says. “ESPN did a special on us, on my dad and the team, and so we figured if they were going to do us, we would be in, especially once they showed the segment on the selection show. There were four guys on the team that I lived with last year, and all five of us are back and real upset. There’s definitely a chip on our shoulders to improve and make up for last year that we’re carrying into this season.”
To that end, the Mountain West brought Jim Wright from the NCAA’s statistics service to its fall coaches meetings, to demystify the RPI. Gwynn was receptive to suggestions and has tried to plan a non-conference tournament with San Diego State as the host. The six-team event would see two other league clubs join the Aztecs and three non-league teams in a three-day event that would run concurrent to a similar tournament at Nevada-Las Vegas.
“Everybody wants to take their teams to Las Vegas and to San Diego, but nobody really wants to fly in to play baseball in Provo in February or March,” Gwynn says. “It’s possible that once the construction finishes on the Padres’ new ballpark, we could even play the tournament there. It would work for everyone–it lets the Padres have a dry run in the ballpark in March before the major league season starts, and we get to have our players have a weekend playing in a big league park.”
Gwynn goes on for a minute or two more, talking excitedly about making the tournament an annual affair, of how the cheaper tickets for the college game would lure fans to the ballpark once, and they would come back at higher prices for the Padres.
“I told Vance Law that I want to be the best coach I can be, but the point of that is also to sell college baseball and to get people involved,” he says. “It’s a great product. The majority of big leaguers played college ball, and obviously it worked well for me, so I’ve got to try to take advantage of that.”
Once Tony Gwynn the player, he is now Tony Gwynn, college baseball coach. And even after Anthony gets drafted after this season, he still intends to be Tony Gwynn, college baseball coach, for a long time.