By STEVE KORNACKI Special to FOXSportsDetroit.com ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Quintin Berry said Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn became so much more than his coach at San Diego State.
“Tony was my mentor and a father figure for me,” said Berry, the rookie left fielder who has emerged to spark the Detroit Tigers. “He taught me everything — how to hold myself as a professional and as a man.
“I want to be just like Tony Gwynn, the person. I can’t hope to be Tony Gwynn the baseball player. That’s way too high to shoot for.”
Gwynn was one of the game’s greatest hitters. He batted .338 in 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres, accumulated 3,141 hits and won eight National League batting championships. He was a 15-time All-Star and also won five Gold Gloves as a right fielder.
Gwynn could do it all.
But as much as Berry credits Gwynn for making him a major league hitter — and Berry still works out five times weekly under Gwynn’s watch at San Diego State in the winter— it is what Gwynn gave Berry in life that means the most.
“He cares so much,” Berry said. “He could always tell when something was bothering me — and I don’t mean baseball. His door was open for everybody on the team.”
Gwynn will talk about Berry as long as you care to, and often laughed heartily when discussing his former player and good friend in a phone conversation from San Diego.
“To see Quintin having the success he’s having now — well, I’m really proud of him,” Gwynn said. “He’s grinding, but he’s relaxing and having fun. I’m so happy for him.”
Gwynn said he probably never would have met or recruited Berry, 27, if Gwynn hadn’t gone to recruit Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, Berry’s more famous teammate at Morse High in San Diego.
“In coming to watch Adam,” Gwynn, 52, said, “I saw something in him that day that told me he had a chance to be really good. He kind of reminded me of myself at the same age: raw with a lot of talent.
“Both of them signed with San Diego State, but Adam went in the supplemental first round to Seattle and signed with them. Adam was the shortstop then, and Quintin played center. We all stay in touch, and I challenge both of them to be special players. Adam is on his way.”
Jones, an All-Star in 2009 who was named to the 2012 squad as a reserve on Sunday, is in his seventh big-league season. He already has 710 hits and is batting .302 this season.
Berry cooled off during the weekend series on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays. He was 2 for 15 but scored two runs and knocked in one. He’s now batting .296 with 25 runs, one homer and 13 RBI and a team-high 12 steals. He has a .385 on-base percentage, two triples and two outfield assists.
“He’s really given us a shot in the arm because he gives us another dimension to our game,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “He brings speed and athleticism that we don’t have.”
If Berry keeps it up, and Detroit can move from third place to first, he has the potential to become something of a Jeremy Lin story. Lin came out of nowhere to energize the New York Knicks after failing to impress both the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors enough to keep him.
Berry was drafted in the 25th round by the Atlanta Braves out of high school but went to San Diego State and improved under Gwynn. The Philadelphia Phillies made him their fifth-round pick in 2006, but he never got past Double-A with them.
Berry was put on waivers and hooked on with the hometown Padres organization before moving onto the Mets and then the Reds with little success. In a brief fling with Triple-A Louisville last season, his first test above Double-A ball, he batted .056.
“I think that after Quintin was drafted by the Phillies, he thought he had it made,” Gwynn said. “But then he was the only one in this group of guys who work out in the offseason who had not reached the majors. I think that ate at him.
“The hardest I ever saw him work was after he was signed by the Tigers (on Nov. 9, 2011). He realized he was not going to have a whole lot more opportunities, and he really grinded it out this winter.”
Berry said his mentor misunderstood some of what he saw.
“He saw how bothered I was by all those other years,” Berry said. “And what he saw last winter was more fire — that I had something to prove to everybody who let me go.”
Berry and several other major leaguers are among those who hit five times each week with Gwynn in the cages and on the field at San Diego State.
“My whole swing is based around what Tony has taught me,” he said. “It’s all based on how huge he is about using the bottom hand in your swing. You just stabilize the swing with the upper hand so you don’t roll over on your swing.
“Tony simplifies hitting. He just stresses three things: Get a good pitch, let the ball travel and take the bottom hand to the ball. He says that at clinics, and people ask, ‘Is that all there is to it?’ ”
Berry made an impression in spring training but was not called up until May 22. He has done all of his damage in less than six weeks.
“His job is to move the ball around and use his speed,” Gwynn said. “He needs to get on base and make things happen with those guys hitting behind him. And he’s doing that.”
Berry generally bats second, ahead of sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
“I watch a lot of the games,” Gwynn said. “What really impressed me was watching him against Jon Lester of the Red Sox. Against a pitcher like that, he didn’t try to do too much. He just put the ball in play.
“And that’s what I told him: ‘Don’t force things; let the game come to you.’ When he called me up to say he’d finally made it, I said, ‘Just have fun and play.’ ”
Berry said he followed that advice to the letter.
What’s been the best thing about finally making it to the majors?
“The opportunity to have my family be a part of it,” Berry said. “My mother, my sister, my wife and my 8-month-old son, Kameron, all mean the world to me.
“They battled, cried and talked with me. And when I made it, it was like they made it. I saw that in their eyes, in their faces.”
And that is why the five-hit game on Father’s Day against the Colorado Rockies at Comerica Park has been the top highlight.
“My family was all there,” Berry said. “I got to take my son on the field for Father’s Day and got five hits. Looking at my mom, my wife — it was just awesome.”
And his father figure, Gwynn, was soaking it all in, too.
“Quintin’s made giant strides,” he said. “He learned from failure and when things don’t go your way.
“But he made it because he never was afraid to fail.”