And off they went, not quite arm-in-arm, given that a continent
divided them, but conjoined nonetheless in their twin devotion
to work. Which two other players have done as much over the
course of two decades to promote the ideal of duty as Cal Ripken
Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles and Tony Gwynn of the San Diego
Padres? Which one other player? That they left baseball within a
day of each other (after having reached the big leagues on these
very same teams within a season of each other) was a nice touch
and convenient for lessons of constancy. We aren't likely ever
again to enjoy such an example of double-barreled disparate
They were more different than alike, of course. Aside from the
timing of their careers and the extravagance of their retirement
parties, the two 41-year-olds followed opposite base paths. The
more reserved Ripken revolutionized the shortstop position,
demonstrating that middle infielders could produce more than
nicely turned double plays. His major-league-record 345 home runs
as a shortstop (86 of his 431 homers came as a third baseman)
will always be overshadowed by his record-shattering 2,632
consecutive games played. Still, that first stat is no less
astonishing, the first inkling that power hitting and deft
defense might be combined at shortstop.
The squeaky-voiced Gwynn was the driven singles hitter, so
humiliated by those two out of three tries in which he failed to
hit safely (the specter haunting many a Hall of Famer) that his
life was formed around the idea of contact. On the road, long
after night games had ended, he drew shut the blackout curtains
in his hotel room and rewound tape on the VCR he lugged around,
fast-forwarding past lunging, embarrassing and mortifying
appearances until he found--one time out of three, at least--the
reassuring crispness of bat upon ball.
As a consequence Gwynn's 3,141 hits, nearly all in the service of
average, produced eight National League batting championships. He
batted less than .300 only once, in his rookie year of 1982, and
ended with a lifetime .338 mark, 17th best in history. Ripken may
have been more fastidious about his attendance, but he was far
the more reckless of the two at the plate. His nearly identical
3,184 hits were value-added by comparison, which is why he ended
up eight batting championships behind Gwynn but two MVP awards
October 14, 2001
Nonetheless, it was appropriate to celebrate their leave-taking
together, and not just because they both exited last weekend in
what seemed like rolling waves of ceremony, pomp piled upon
circumstance as baseball began shutting down for the year.
Whatever these guys did, they did it every day, stroke for
stroke, for a longer time than most of their fellows were
remotely capable of. They didn't grow bored with the idea of
hitting, say, .358, a mark Gwynn attained in 1993, or playing in
more games consecutively than anyone else ever had. What Gwynn
and Ripken shared was the desire, or maybe a need, to do it
again. So Gwynn, the next season, would hit .394, and Ripken,
after breaking Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" record, played another
It's a formidable personality who these days recognizes the
challenge of repetition, the honor of work, the demands of a game
that don't decrease with longevity or experience but increase
instead. Who needs it? Who needs it after 20 years?
Because, apparently, only Gwynn and Ripken still did, there was
the decision to offer recognition of retirement beyond the
normal parting gifts, even for athletes. For Ripken this meant
an elaborate and emotional farewell before a capacity crowd at
Camden Yards. No stop was left unpulled. For Gwynn, who also had
the benefit of a sold-out home crowd, at Qualcomm Stadium, the
send-off was a bit more restrained, a lot less noticed. It
reflected the difference between being a contact hitter and a
slugger, as Gwynn himself had explained. "It annoyed me for a
long time," he said the year after he made a good run at .400
yet finished seventh in the MVP voting, "but I'm getting the
Ripken's career was the more captivating of the two, anyway,
because of his consecutive-game record. He would have been an
important figure without it--he is, after all, one of only seven
players to have more than 3,000 hits and 400 home runs--but the
buildup to Gehrig's record in 1995 became a national mania, as if
the long-overlooked discipline of punching in had suddenly been
restored in America. Ripken, by virtue of showing up every day,
became the poster boy for blue-collar workers, although even in
'95 baseball was several levels removed from factory work.
He was treated more like retiring royalty last Saturday night
before, during and after the meaningless game between the
fourth-place Orioles and the second-place Boston Red Sox. The
orchestration of the event, which seemed to include Ripken's
final on-field performance only as an afterthought, was
complicated and dramatic, involving vintage video ("I'm only
thankful," Ripken said, "that my prom picture didn't show up
there"), vintage audio (the theme from The Natural), vintage
players (Baltimore's lineup from his first big league start, on
Aug. 12, 1981, was trotted out, except for shortstop Mark
Belanger, who died in '98) and one vintage car (Ripken took a
victory lap after the game in a '61 Corvette).
It was so staged that it was hard to tell the ceremony from a
certain soft-drink commercial that features Ripken (who annually
earns $6 million in endorsements) walking off an empty field with
his daughter, Rachel. However, inasmuch as the evening involved
Ripken's family, it felt authentic. Certainly it was a jolt when
Ripken was directed to escort his mother, Vi, to the first base
dugout and uncover a plaque of his father, the former Orioles
coach and manager, also named Cal, who died two years ago. And
certainly it was fun when, in the postgame press conference,
eight-year-old son Ryan asked, "Were you sad?"
Said Cal Jr., "Are you trying to make me cry?"
Ripken had steeled himself for the moment, beginning in June when
he announced his retirement, but he still wasn't completely
prepared. "I said I could put off these feelings until later in
the year," he said. "As later in the year approached, that was
harder to do."
The night lacked the heroics of his All-Star Game performance in
July, when, having been selected out of respect for his legacy
and not his sub-.250 batting average (he finished at a fading
.239), he homered and was named the game's MVP. Against Boston
last Saturday night he went 0 for 3 and looked increasingly
peeved as the night wore on, as if the game somehow mattered
beyond the ceremonial aspects.
The futility provided an appropriate bookend, though. When he
first popped into the lineup in 1981, he endured a horrible
slump, similar to this year's season-ending 2-for-48 skid. Maybe
what mattered was what happened in between.
Gwynn's retirement party had the same basic elements: fanfare,
baseball highlights narrated by Bob Costas and the appearance of
the 1982 Padres, spreading out from a rightfield gate like
ghosts. Because it all happened after the game, though, it felt
low-key in comparison to Ripken's.
Like Ripken's, Gwynn's final game ended with a whimper,
overshadowed by teammate Rickey Henderson's 3,000th hit, in the
first inning, which prompted a bench-clearing celebration. By the
time Gwynn pinch-hit in the ninth--he no longer trusted himself to
play rightfield, so bum had his right knee become--with the Padres
trailing the Colorado Rockies 14-5, not much tension was left.
Gwynn, who batted .324 in his second straight season of limited
play, failed to steer a first-pitch fastball into the leftside
hole. With just that flick of the wrists, his career was over.
The two move on now: Ripken to build a giant baseball academy, in
his hometown of Aberdeen, Md., that will feature scaled-down
replicas of six big league fields; Gwynn up the hill to San Diego
State, to coach his alma mater's baseball team and, not
coincidentally, his son, Anthony, a sophomore outfielder. Those
swerves into amateur baseball are fitting for these two players.
Besides celebrating the dignity of work, the other trait they had
in common was generosity of spirit.
Over the years each attracted his critics, with almost identical
complaints. Ripken, it was charged, was an egomaniac whose
selfish pursuit of Gehrig's record might have gotten in the way
of the Orioles' best interests. Once his quest had gained true
momentum, it became impossible for the club to bench him, and
there were times when he might have deserved pine. Gwynn, as is
the case with any contact hitter, was sniped at for selfishness,
looking for his average above all else. It's too bad that the
grumbling must be mentioned, because, if for anything else, these
guys have stood for sharing.
Ripken, though gone gray, remained a rollicking clubhouse
presence who spent postgame hours under the outfield lights
signing autographs. "Why not?" he'd always say. His family was
asleep--what better to do? Gwynn, whose cherubic personality
finally took shape in his ballooning body, was right to the end
one of the most available players in baseball. Would a selfish
man often hamstring his earning power by telling the Padres at
contract time that he planned to stay in San Diego forever?
On Sunday, which presumably was a day to have all to himself,
Gwynn cajoled Henderson into noon batting practice--typical of
Gwynn, not so routine for Henderson. Henderson, who needed the
one hit to make the 3,000 club, didn't even intend to play for
fear of deflecting the spotlight from Gwynn, but Gwynn talked him
not only into taking the field but also into special BP as well.
"He wanted to see my hit," Henderson said.
So Ripken and Gwynn finished in character, together, two guys who
have been lifelong antidotes to the modern-day athlete's
self-involvement, two guys who found the fun in work. Remember
Ripken's wondering at the cynicism that attended his record? "If
you could play every day," he said, "wouldn't you?" Remember
Gwynn on Sunday, his day, seeking out second-year Rockies
centerfielder Juan Pierre, who on Saturday had reached 200 hits
for the season? "You're going to have a great career," Gwynn told
Pierre, who seemed almost paralyzed by the attention he was
getting. "You've just got to smile more."
Gwynn's more restrained send-off reflected the difference
between being a contact hitter and a slugger.