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Hitters Hotly Pursue Baseball Milestones

Batting champ Gwynn talks of brush with .400 average

When Tony Gwynn talks about hitting a baseball, people listen.

And why shouldn't they? In today's game, no major leaguer can match his consistency at the plate (13 straight .300 seasons) nor perhaps his enthusiasm for talking hitting.

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The garrulous nature of the San Diego Padres' stocky right fielder was recently put on audio display by Major League Baseball, which made him the featured attraction of a weekly meet-the-press teleconference.

For those who don't often see or hear Gwynn, who's labored with the Padres throughout has 15-year, big-league career, he proved an insightful chatterbox - the kind of guy any fan would love to sit next to.

Of prime interest on this occasion were Gwynn's thoughts on batting .400, something he almost did during the strike-shortened 1994 season. His .394 average marked the closest approach to .400 since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941. (Kansas City's George Brett, with a .390 average in 1980, is the only other postwar player within 10 points of this celebrated figure.)

Does Gwynn think it's possible for anyone to hit .400 anymore?

"I think it's possible. I think the last couple of years has convinced me it's possible," he says.

But despite batting .358, .394, and .368 the past three years, he doesn't see himself reaching the end of the hitters' rainbow.

"If there was any year I was going to do it, it was '94, and I wasn't able to do it," he says. "In order to hit .400, everything's got to be clicking.... That means you're going to get some bunt hits, some infield hits, some bloopers. And to me, '94 was that year. I mean everything that I hit just seemed to find a hole."

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The .400 talk of the moment centers around Baltimore second baseman Roberto Alomar, who has been on an incredible tear with a .403 average. Several other players are within hailing distance at .350 or better, including Los Angeles catcher Mike Piazza, who leads the National League and is well ahead of the subpar Gwynn at .340.

San Diego's hitmaster, however, knows the challenges of sustained excellence and that many hot hitters back up to the field as the season progresses.

Alomar, in particular, has had no history of pushing the .400 envelope. His previous season high, a .326 average, occurred in 1993.

"I think lots of guys would be relaxed enough during the course of the season to make a serious run at it [.400], but you get to September," Gwynn says, "and you have to deal with all the attention. That's going to be the real hard part."

When Williams last batted .400, there were only 16 major-league clubs. Today there are 28, with two more - Phoenix and Tampa Bay - on the way in 1998. Gwynn says he believes this growth, maybe more than any other factor, has helped to jack up hitting statistics. He sees this trend as leading to something big.

"With expansion coming up again," he observes, "I think there's a good possibility that before we get to the year 2000, somebody is going to break one of these records that haven't been broken in a while. You know, 60 [actually 61] homers or hitting .400 or a 50, 60-game hitting streak [Joe DiMaggio's 56-game streak is considered one of baseball's most untouchable feat].

"Sooner or later one of these things is going to fall. And when it does, I think what people are going to point to more than anything is that guys haven't had a chance to really develop themselves as pitchers."

Gwynn's opinion - that minor-league hurlers are prematurely rushed into the majors to fill out thin pitching staffs - is heard with increasing frequency around baseball.

Diluted pitching is thought to be a factor in the home-run bashing, which finds several players, including 1995 American League Most Valuable Player Mo Vaughn, on a near 60-homer pace.

"With the exception of the Atlanta Braves," says Gwynn, "when you go out and face a team in a three- or four-game series, chances are you're going to see two guys who can pitch, one guy who's on the verge of becoming a good pitcher, and another guy who hasn't had enough time to pitch yet."

'AS quickly as I say that," continues Gwynn, "you've got to give a hitter some credit, because no matter who's out there on that hill, he knows what he's trying to do with the baseball. And as a hitter your job is to make the adjustment."

Few have done it better than Gwynn, who starred collegiately in both basketball and baseball at San Diego State and was presented the 1995 Branch Rickey Award for outstanding community service by a major-league player.

Gwynn has played in relative obscurity as a professional. The Padres have seldom been a pennant contender since the franchise's lone World Series appearance in 1984.

"I'd trade everything I've ever done to have another opportunity to go to a World Series," says Gwynn, whose last statistical goal is 3,000 career hits (he's at 2,467 hits as of June 9). "We're off to a good start this year [San Diego leads the National League West], so hopefully we can make a run at it."

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