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Parallel paths that never cross

It's appropriate that pure hitters Gwynn and Boggs converge on 3,000 hits simultaneously.

The folks at the Scholastic Aptitude Test are going to love this one.

If a future batting champion begins in Boston in April 1982 and goes off on a .328 clip, and another future batting champion begins in San Diego in July 1982 and goes off on a .338 clip, which future batting champion will reach 3,000 hits first?

And no peeking at the box scores.

It is more than coincidence that Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn have arrived at the 3,000-hit plateau in nearly simultaneous fashion. It is cosmic convergence.

It would be impossible to find two other players with so much in common and with so little contact over the past 17 years.

Boggs has spent his entire career in the American League, Gwynn in the National. Boggs has been strictly East Coast _ Boston, New York, Tampa Bay. Gwynn has never left San Diego. Boggs won five batting titles, all before 1989. Gwynn has won eight, the majority since '89.

Yet they have been inexorably linked by their uncanny ability to step in the left side of a batter's box and hit line drives beyond the grasps of countless shortstops and third basemen.

"Our careers have paralleled each other for so long," Boggs said, "it's fitting that we both do it in the same year."

As they have traveled toward their separate moments with destiny, a story line gradually has emerged. Boggs, who clearly was the better hitter earlier in their careers, has graciously sidestepped talk of competition between them. Gwynn, whose status as a hitter surpassed Boggs in recent years, has continually dropped hints inviting comparisons.

"I know there is a little something there between him and Wade," said Rays catcher John Flaherty, who played with Boggs in Boston and Tampa Bay and spent a year and a half in San Diego with Gwynn. "I don't know if it was that Wade used to get more of the spotlight or notoriety or what. Tony never said anything about it to me, but I think there was something there."

Gwynn acknowledges that he has measured his career against Boggs over the years. The comparison was a natural.

Both were spray hitters playing positions normally associated with power. The only way to earn their keep was to hit for an unnaturally high average.

For Boggs, it was a snap. He hit .349 as a rookie and had a .356 career average with the five batting titles by the time he was 30. Gwynn did well, but not quite as well. He arrived a few months after Boggs and took longer to establish himself. Boggs also was older, nearly 24 when he made his big-league debut. Gwynn arrived in the majors just after his 22nd birthday.

"When I broke in, Wade was already in the majors and he had set the standard," Gwynn said. "He came right out of the blocks with a 200-hit season and 100 walks and 100 runs. He was the type of hitter I wanted to be. He became the hunted for me."

Somewhere along the line, in a barely perceptible pattern, their careers began changing courses. Boggs still was a top hitter, but not the machine he had been. Gwynn, meanwhile, seemed to get better as he got older.

The easiest delineation is their averages between the 1980s and '90s. Boggs hit .352 during the '80s, while Gwynn hit .332.

Since 1990, however, Boggs is a .304 hitter. Gwynn has hit .343 during the decade.

Still, Boggs said he has never envied Gwynn as a rival because, other than All-Star Games, they never played against one another and never competed for individual titles.

"I never had to worry, if I was hitting .365, what did Tony do today? I was fighting Rod Carew and George Brett and guys like that for batting titles," Boggs said. "I never had to treat him as an adversary. We were allies, I was pulling for him. It's kind of hard to pull for a guy when you're competing against him."