Friends and family

LOS ANGELES – On a summer afternoon four years ago, Tony Gwynn Jr. was in the first professional clubhouse he'd ever been paid to be in.

This was A-ball in Beloit, Wis. This is where it would start.

He walked into the office and introduced himself to Don Money, the manager. A big kid, about Gwynn's age and vaguely familiar, was in a nearby chair. When the player-manager pleasantries were done, the big kid said, "Hey, you wanna room with me?"

"Sure," Gwynn said.

"Cool," the big kid said.

That was that. Gwynn, Tony's son, was going to live with Prince Fielder, Cecil's son, on spec.

"I mean, he didn't know my personality, he didn't know how clean I was," Gwynn said, still astounded.

Fielder shrugged.

"I knew how it was when I first got drafted," he said. "And I wanted to see if we had the same things growing up. I thought it'd be a good, kind of cool thing."

Gwynn said his see-you-laters.

"I didn't know who he was," he said. "Someone said, 'That's Cecil's son.' From that point on, I knew it was going to be really good. We were already going to have a lot in common."

This week they were four lockers apart in the visitors' clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, and for two games side by side in the Milwaukee Brewers' lineup. They'd long ago found they had the same things growing up, and even if the game didn't much care, they did.

Fielder, of course, with power stroke, shot through the Brewers' system and was seventh in last season's National League Rookie of the Year voting. He has 15 home runs and 37 RBI in the first two months of his second full season. He just turned 23.

Drafted a year behind Fielder, Gwynn was a fast and polished center fielder, but struggled against big-league pitching last September. As a result, he arrived in spring training three months ago as the likely casualty when shortstop Bill Hall was reassigned to center field. He probably would return to the minor leagues.

He talked to his father. They decided it was a good time for Tony Jr. to play the best ball of his life.

"You could see in his face he was frustrated," Tony Sr. said. "But the conversation we had was, 'You can play left and right and there are 29 other clubs. So, what are you going to do? Are you going to keep on sulking about it or are you going to work to improve?'"

Tony Jr. played so well in camp he forced the Brewers to carry six outfielders. And now he's batting .350 as a part-time outfielder and pinch-hitter, at 24 playing the role of the veteran off the bench who takes good at-bats at difficult times, and in the past two weeks getting regular at-bats as the Brewers' right fielder.

"I try not to put too much brain into it," he said. "Whatever they give me, I'm going to take it and run with it."

It's the sort of talk a dad has with his boy about baseball, about taking a job and doing it well or someone else will. It's the sort of example the elder Gwynn unconsciously set late in his career, when his son happened to be most impressionable, playing his final years on a bum knee, playing when it allowed him to, and hitting anyway. Or someone else would.

"He didn't feel sorry for himself," Tony Jr. said. "That kind of stuck with me, for whatever reason."

Fielder had an explanation.

"That's a prime-time father-son relationship they have," he said. "His dad's always behind him. It's awesome. As a son, that's all you can ask for."

Fielder was envious. He remains so.

"Oh, yeah," he said.

If you didn't know, Prince hasn't spoken to Cecil in about three years. A relationship designed for a lifetime was gone by the time Prince was 20, lost in a bad divorce. A fortune was squandered, as was Cecil's failed career as Prince's agent and who knows what else.

Leaving very little.

"My dad, I'll be compared to him no matter how much better I am than him," Fielder said. "So, whatever."

Except it's not nearly that easy for Prince.

"That always irritated me," he said. "He didn't swing the bats for me. He didn't do the hard work."

There, in and around that, were the Gwynns. The father called, checked in, empathized, and the son was happy to have it, as if the joys of knocking around the San Diego Padres clubhouse had hardly ended. Prince led the same childhood-by-baseball, spread across Toronto, Detroit, New York, Anaheim and Cleveland, heaving batting-practice home runs in his early teens that brought delight from the big leaguers and approval from his father.

Then the phone calls stopped, because he didn't take them anymore.

"Even though he's a hundred pounds heavier, I tried to be the big brother," Tony Jr. said. "I was there when he was going through all that stuff with his pops. They were little steps and they were taken behind the scenes, but no one knows the strides he's taken as a person."

In their minor-league winters, Prince would fly to San Diego, sometimes for a week or more. He'd stay with the Gwynns. They'd work out. They'd hit. They'd talk.

And when Prince needed a little something more, the Gwynns had enough left over for him.

"I'm flattered he would think that's the way you're supposed to do it," Tony Sr. said. "That's what I learned from my parents, and what my wife, Alicia, learned from her parents. As the kids have gotten older, it's only gotten better.

"I'm sure Prince would like to have that situation, too. But he doesn't. … When you're young and that doesn't happen, or doesn't happen the way it should happen, and you have kids, it really sets in."

Prince married and had two boys of his own. Always mature, he grew more. His game, his confidence and his leadership have helped drag the Brewers up from a quarter-century of organizational lethargy.

On Wednesday night in Los Angeles, taking up for his side, and his guys, he poked a mitt at Dodgers first-base coach Mariano Duncan's chest and stood firmly in the middle as two teams rushed in.

For a moment, amid the swirling anger and posturing, Fielder and Gwynn were shoulder to shoulder. It made sense.

They weren't roommates every year. They weren't always teammates. But Tony Jr. was there in a bad time, and they were friends, and in that period Fielder got a sense of how these lifetime relationships are supposed to work.

"I look at him and his dad," Fielder said, "and try to do the same with my kids."