Twilight of the Baseball Gods

Wherefore art thou, Tony? Let us count the ways, Cal.

America's love affair with sports heroes can be a pretty sordid business, based more on flash than substance. One year, the madding crowd worships a steroid-stuffed behemoth who whacks lots of Flubber-filled cowhide into the cheap seats. The next, they fall for a third-rate tennis player with pretty legs. Then go nuts for pickup-truck races.

But all is good and well in the sporting world this week. The farewell appearances of 41-year-old Tony Gwynn and 40-year-old Cal Ripken Jr. at Tuesday's Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Seattle were ceremonial, to be sure -- just as Jack Nicklaus's last hurrahs at the Masters or the U.S. Open have become ceremonial. But Gwynn and Ripken embody the highest qualities of our greatest game, its true glories. So the second half of these stars' final season on the diamond should be an occasion for joy. And for contemplation.

It's a foregone conclusion that the best hitter since Ted Williams, along with the Ironman, who's proved even more durable than Lou Gehrig, will enter the Hall of Fame together come 2007. The twin announcements of their retirements, brought on by nagging injuries and made known just two weeks apart, guarantee that. The only question is whether a handful of misguided beat writers will deny them voter unanimity on the first ballot. The more interesting topic is how Gwynn and Ripken played the game and what they'll leave behind when they hang up their spikes.

One thing's called Brilliance. The other is Loyalty.

As any Little Leaguer can tell you, these might be the last of baseball's one-town, one-team stars. In the long history of the game, only seventeen men played at least twenty seasons and spent their entire careers with the same club, and the present retirees are two of them. Some of the others? Brooks Robinson. Stan Musial. Mel Ott. George Brett. Al Kaline. Willie Stargell. Robin Yount. Walter "Big Train" Johnson. It's splendid company, an entire gallery of retired uniform numbers.

A Southern Californian by birth, Gwynn joined the San Diego Padres in 1982, and with San Diego he remains -- despite many wooings and big-money offers from other teams over the years. He's the most beloved player in the history of the Padres franchise, and the best. He won eight National League batting titles and five Gold Gloves in right field. At last count, he had 3,125 hits (sixteenth in major-league history), and his career average at the plate was .338, which puts him in the company of immortal batting machines like Gehrig, Williams, Nap Lajoie and Wee Willie Keeler. Any young player who wants to know about hitting studies Gwynn as minutely as Gwynn studies his own videotapes. Anyone shopping for a sports role model needs to study Gwynn even more carefully. He gets to the ballpark five hours before game time. He lies down in the road on behalf of local charities. His idea of a big night out is picking up pizza for his wife and kids.

Ripken, a Baltimore native whose father was a coach for the Orioles, came up with the club he had always loved in 1981 and liked his job so much that he played 2,632 consecutive games between 1982 and 1998. In September 1995 he surpassed Gehrig's seemingly unbreakable record of 2,130 straight, and -- in the wake of the 1994 baseball strike that canceled the World Series and brought the game into disrepute -- became the national pastime's one-man redemption team. "I tried to love every minute I was on the field," Ripken said recently. There were lots of moments. Nearly obscured by Ripken's nation-healing night six years ago are the specifics of a great career at shortstop and, later, at third base: He was a two-time American League MVP and one of just seven players with more than 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. He won two Gold Gloves and has now played in nineteen consecutive All-Star Games -- every one of them for the Baltimore Orioles, of course.

In the era of free agency and obscene player salaries, when every millionaire is for sale to the highest bidder, Gwynn and Ripken are the last of a breed. Among current players, only Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin has put in as many as sixteen years with his club, and only two others, Atlanta's Tom Glavine and Seattle's Edgar Martinez, have played fifteen seasons in the same uniform. I don't know about you, but I'm glad that baseball whores like the (last-place) Cincinnati Reds' Ken Griffey Jr. weren't worthy of playing in the All-Star Game this year. Where would their bankers and chauffeurs have sat?

Gwynn, the ultimate singles and doubles hitter, a player who never quite got his due because he didn't hit the long ball, was characteristically modest at the press conference at which he announced his retirement: "To me, it's easier to see greatness in other players than myself," he said. "I know the back of my bubblegum card from here to eternity will look pretty good. But for people to rate you, that's for other people to do." Not to worry. Gwynn's Padres may have lost eight of the nine World Series games he played in, but he hit .500 against the Yankees in 1998 and even smashed a home run off the facade at Yankee Stadium -- in his first-ever at-bat there. A pair of Colorado Rockies sluggers (Andres Galarraga in 1993, Larry Walker in 1998 and 1999) occasionally stole the NL batting crown from him, but only Gwynn and the great Honus Wagner won eight of them. His lofty perch in baseball history is secure.

So is Ripken's. Baseball's ultimate gamer and gentleman, the last vestige of what was once proudly called The Oriole Way -- dedicated to fundamentals and based on a strong farm system -- played 21 years for a team to which he had blood ties, becoming one of its greatest icons. But he knew this spring that the end was near. He said that although he was increasingly frustrated by the injuries that put him on the bench in recent seasons, the game had always kept him young and eager. "Last year, even being less than a year out of back surgery," he said, "I felt like the kid with a temperature who was sitting inside the house watching the other kids play." Alas, the silver-haired kid at the window must finally move on. To Cooperstown, to immortality.

That brings us, of course, to Todd Helton. If there's justice and goodness in the world, the National League will henceforth call its batting title the Tony Award (New York theater history be damned), the American League will give out the Holy Cal! trophy for most games played, and the Colorado Rockies' splendid MVP first baseman will become the guy who carries on the Gwynn-Ripken (the Gwypken?) tradition of loyalty in a world of crass merchandizing. Certainly the structure is already in place, and Helton's heart seems willing. Upon signing a lucrative contract extension this spring that will keep him in Denver for eleven more seasons (with an option to leave in 2007), the 27-year-old All-Star said: "When I was growing up, you identified a team by its players, and now I will be able to spend my entire career with one team. In this era, that's a very special feeling."

Just don't get hurt, kid. You're still a dozen or so points behind Gwynn in career batting average, and it will take 2,000 or so nights of uninterrupted play to get into the longevity ball game with the Ironman. So, have at 'em: Rockies fans want to watch you forever.


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