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Ringolsby: A Self-Made Hall Of Famer

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During his senior year in high school, Bobby Meacham was on a recruiting visit to San Diego State, sitting in the office of baseball coach Jim Dietz, when Tony Gwynn walked down the hall.

“Is that Tony Gwynn?” Meacham asked Dietz.

Dietz said it was.

“I didn’t know Tony was on the team,” Meacham said.

“He isn’t,” Dietz said. “He’s on the basketball team.”

“He’s the best baseball player I ever played against,” Meacham said.

Meacham, who attended Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., and Gwynn, who attended Long Beach Poly High, played against each other, both during the school year and in summer leagues.

“He loved basketball,” said Meacham, a shortstop who spent six seasons in the majors with the Yankees and today manages Triple-A Buffalo for the Blue Jays. “He wanted to play in the NBA.”

And he may well have, had Tim Vezie, the coach who recruited Gwynn to play basketball for the Aztecs and made him agree not to play baseball, not been fired as the Aztecs’ basketball coach after Gwynn’s freshman year. He was replaced by Smoky Gaines.

After Vezie left, Meacham said he approached Gwynn and told him, “You don’t have a coach, so come out for baseball, and we’ll lobby the new coach to let you play.”

Gwynn decided to give it a try, and the timing was perfect. Two of the Aztecs’ outfielders were injured when an automobile hit the bicycles they were riding.And the rest is baseball history.

Gwynn continued to play basketbal and was an all-WAC point guard. But by then Padres general manager Jack McKeon had stumbled upon Gwynn while watching the Padres and San Diego State play an end-of-spring training exhibition game at Qualcomm Stadium.

“Back then, the NCAA did not have a limit on games played, so San Diego State would start playing in January,” McKeon said. “I only lived a few miles from their ballpark, so if they had a game, I’d go watch the Aztecs before we’d go to spring training.

“That year, Bobby Meacham was the key guy. Teams were sending crosscheckers in to look at him. He was a (potential) first-round guy. I probably saw 20 games before spring training that year. I knew their players pretty well.”

He didn’t, however, know Gwynn at that time.

“At the end of spring training, we’re playing the Aztecs,” said McKeon. “I was sitting in the (general manager’s) box with the San Diego State athletic director, and this guy goes up to hit, and boom—a double off Juan Eichelberger.Next time up, it’s boom—a triple off Steve Mura. I asked the athletic director, ‘Who is this guy? I watched this team a lot before spring training. I don’t remember seeing him.’ He told me it was Tony Gwynn, and he was a basketball player . . . He had joined the baseball team five days earlier.”

McKeon was sold on Gwynn. The challenge became convincing the scouting staff.

“We got ready for the (1981) draft and nobody had Gwynn on their list,” McKeon said. “We were going to take (Arkansas outfielder) Kevin McReynolds No. 1, and I said, ‘OK, but we’re taking Gwynn No. 2.’ ”

The scouting staff balked. They were sold on Miami righthander Bill Long. Said McKeon, “I hadn’t seen Long, but the scouts had. I said, ‘If you are telling me Long is better than Tony Gwyn, I’ll take your word for it, but Gwynn is No. 3, and there isn’t going to be any debate.’”

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McKeon was right.

“Bob Cluck lived in San Diego and was a national crosschecker for the Astros, and he had (Gwynn) high on his list,” McKeon said. “If we didn’t take Gwynn in the third round, he would have been an Astro.”

By the end of his career, the list of Gwynn’s admirers had grown so long that he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

“He made himself a Hall of Famer,” McKeon said. At San Diego State, he was a basketball player who would come out for the end of the baseball season.

“When he got to the big leagues, he’d be at the park about 1 o’clock for a night game, taking batting practice by himself. He was always working to be better.”

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