Let's just walk on over here to the batting cage and see if we can meet Tony Gwynn, the leading hitter in the major leagues.

It shouldn't be too hard to spot a fellow who is batting .349 and leads the National League batting race by 28 points. What a specimen this guy must be. Has 187 hits already and headed for 225. Steals bases (27). Hits with some extra-base power, drives in a bunch of runs (61), even though he bats No. 2 for the San Diego Padres.

Yes, we're on the lookout for quite a man here. A right fielder with a strong and accurate arm, plus speed to burn. A guy who leaps above outfield fences to steal home runs.

Why, Tony Gwynn was such a basketball star at San Diego State that he was drafted by the NBA.

And he's young, too, just in his first full season in the big leagues after partial seasons in 1982 and '83.

At 24, people are already talking about Gwynn as, perhaps, being the next .400 hitter.

Heck, if Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs cools down, Gwynn might be the NL's most valuable player this year.

Let's see, he must be around here somewhere. The next Natural, probably.

Hmmm, No. 19. Never seen him up close. The Padres almost never get on national TV. The guy's a mystery man east of the San Andreas fault.

There he is!

Noooooo, that can't be Tony Gwynn. Who's stolen the batting champ's uniform? This must be a joke.

This guy's a little fat kid. Maybe 5 feet 9 1/2, at the most. He's pudgy everywhere and there's not a muscle in sight. He may weigh 185, but it's a soft, misproportioned 185. This can't be the fellow who batted .331, .462, .328, .342 and .368 at stops in the minor leagues and winter ball; this ain't the rookie who batted .309 last season.

If this butterball tried out for a high school team, you wouldn't necessarily pick him as a starter. He looks about 16 years old and his voice is high-pitched and innocent.

Somebody better get this guy off the field and out of Gwynn's uniform before he gets the macaroni kicked out of him. Wait till the real guy shows up -- the beast who hit in 25 straight games last year and is better than .400 this season with men on base.

Look at the silly little bat this guy's using. Who's he kidding? Why, it can't be more than 32 inches long and 31 ounces. Nobody in the majors uses a bat anywhere near that small. You can find bigger bats in Little League; no kidding.

Okay, let's see the imposter swing. There, knew it, knew it. That's not Gwynn. This fraud doesn't swing. He just pecks at the ball. He can barely get a ball out of the infield in batting practice.

No more fooling around. It's time to unmask this interloper. Might as well hear what he has to say. After all, if he really were Tony Gwynn, he'd have an enormous ego; all his coaches say he's a complete player, a smart, polished veteran at a young age.

His batting coach says, "I've never seen a guy with so much confidence with two strikes." His teammate, Graig Nettles, says, "Nobody's handled him all year. And he just sits back, enjoying it." The real Tony Gwynn would be talking about how he made the All-Star team, earns $200,000 a year and is headed on up.

"I'm pretty limited in what I can do," says the guy wearing Gwynn's uniform. "Until this year, I hit everything to the left of second base. I'm just starting to learn to pull the inside pitch to right . . . I slap, poke, chop. Whatever it takes. I just try to put the ball in play and make them get me out . . . There's still a lot of the game that I don't know. I'm not even close to a complete player yet. I'm not patient enough. I don't have the discipline to take a 2-0 pitch if it's not what I was looking for. You can't hit the pitcher's pitch when you're ahead in the count."

Enough is enough. Where's the real Tony Gwynn?

Let's find a savvy old coach and make sure. Excuse us, Harry Dunlop. We're just looking for Tony Gwynn.

"That's Gwynn -- No. 19," says Dunlop. "You'd never pick him out, would you? He's got a body like Yogi Berra, Thurman Munson and Bill Madlock. Gonna have to fight a weight problem his whole career.

"You just can't tell about this game. When I managed (in the minors) at Las Vegas, all I heard was how great a basketball player this Tony Gwynn was. 'You should have seen Gwynn kill the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He's some runnin' guard.' I couldn't wait to manage him and then one day this guy shows up."

Dunlop grins to himself. "Tony always stays within himself and that's so rare in a young player . . . He's cheerful and bubbly, but he's never loud.

"He's not a big spender and you never see him in the bars. He's back in the room on the phone to his wife . . . He's a hard worker and a team guy. He comes to the park 90 minutes early every day just so he can take an extra five minutes of hitting with the scrubs . . . There's nothing fake about him."

What a letdown. Nice guys are such a bore. So commonplace. The big leagues are full of regular guys with normal-sized heads. There's mmmm . . . well, probably at least three or four others.

"In my street clothes, nobody'd say I was a pro athlete. They always told me I couldn't be an athlete. There have always been doubters," Gwynn said with a shrug and without rancor. "I like to think of myself as normal. I try not to act like a ballplayer . . .

"I say 'hello' and 'goodbye' to people. I'm kind of quiet, stay to myself. I love to laugh . . . I just am who I am. Sometimes people can't accept that.

"They ask me if I can hit .400 and I say, 'No.' And I can't unless I get a lot better than I am. The book on me is play me away, pitch me away. I still have to learn how to pull more to overcome that . . .

"Even if I learn to pull, I'm never going to hit home runs. My goal for this year is to hit 30 home runs -- counting batting practice. I'm up to 26, five of 'em in games . . .

"I never thought I'd win a batting title," said Gwynn, adding almost parenthetically, "not this year, at least. That's looking pretty good, too.

"The only thing that worries me is how people are going to look at me after this year. Are they going to expect me to hit .360 every year? That's not possible. It scares me. There are going to be years when everything goes wrong or you get injured. Look at Madlock: he's won four batting titles, but this year he's playing hurt and batting .260.

"When that happens," said Gwynn, almost as though he can see the next 10 years of his career before him, "you just have to stand up and face it."

These days, Tony Gwynn, relatively unknown and completely unspoiled, is one of baseball's sweet surprises.

"Series to series, game to game, each new city is a new adventure," he said beaming.

Glad we found you, Tony Gwynn. Don't let the kids steal that tiny bat and stay away from the chocolate chip cookies.

"Hey, wait a minute," Gwynn says, having a brainstorm. "Can you write down an address and send a copy of this story to my mom?"