Posted: Tuesday January 9, 2007 12:45PM; Updated: Tuesday January 9, 2007 12:45PM
Tony Gwynn loves chatting about the game that made him famous.
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Ripken was born to the game, a kid who would sit on the floor of the manager's office in some dingy minor league ballpark, his back against a cinder block wall, and listen to his father explain the properties of a perfectly executed outfield relay. No athlete appreciates his game better than a coach's son, because the son deeply understands his father's investment. The game comes home every night.
One night in Atlanta, in the first season in which Ripken abdicated his shortstop position for third base, I asked him about the differences between the positions and he brought up outfield relays. Ripken is the same guy who once explained to me, almost poetically, how as a shortstop he never relied on an audible call from his teammates on where to go with a relay from the outfield, his back to the advancing runners. The noise of a big league ballpark, he said, can drown out such help. Instead, he would listen to the crowd, having learned its very precise pitch and volume if the runner was making his way toward home.
This time, as a third basemen, he explained a learning curve on where to position himself as the cutoff man on throws from leftfield toward home. He went on for 15 minutes about how he was trying to figure out the exact proper depth and angle. That was Ripken, a thinking man's player who wore a watch during batting practice, who knew exactly how many steps you needed to climb from the Metrodome field level to the clubhouse, and who knew more about baseball than just about any other player, but who thirsted for more.
Too many people associate Ripken with The Streak, which I always found more freakish, like a Guiness World Record, than a reflection of his ability. The Streak is amazing, but I'm more impressed with the power he brought to the shortstop position and what seemed to be an intuitive manner of fielding his position.
One day I was supposed to have lunch with Ripken in a private club inside the warehouse at Camden Yards. When Mr. Reliability didn't show, I knew something was up. The Orioles and Mariners were involved in a bench-clearing brawl the previous day, and during the fracas I watched Ripken twist his knee on the bottom of the pile and stagger off the field as inconspicuously as he could. When he awoke the next day he was in such pain he was almost certain he would not be able to play. When eventually I saw him at the ballpark, he apologized, of course, and said he wasn't sure if he was going to play. He did play, naturally, and later said it was the closest he came to ending The Streak.
Like Ripken, Gwynn was a font of information and good cheer, only in even greater doses. If you think it a pleasure to watch a guy like Gwynn hit or a guy like Greg Maddux pitch, imagine the cool factor to be able to ask them after a game exactly how they do what they do. Imagine, in another sense, chatting up Springsteen in his dressing room after a show and listening to him walk you through that tight rendition of Thunder Road. Here Gwynn never disappointed.
As we got to know one another, Gwynn came to expect me to ask deeper questions than the norm and thus allotted greater chunks of time for our conversations. He enjoyed explaining his work, in that colorful Gwynnspeak of his (see "doo-doo," above). He didn't just hit balls through the hole between the shortstop and third base, for example, he "carved" in the "5.5 hole."
Once when I asked him about how he approached lefthanded pitchers -- he hit .325 vs. lefties and .345 vs. righties -- Gwynn replied, "Keeping my front shoulder in and trusting my stroke. If you keep your front shoulder in, you can hit anybody."
Only once did I ever see Gwynn show anything close to anger or impatience. He had hit a towering home run off David Wells in the 1998 World Series into the rightfield upper deck of Yankee Stadium. A reporter, not a full-time baseball writer, asked Gwynn if he'd ever hit a ball so far and hard. Gwynn was insulted.
"Man, I've been playing for 17 years," he recalled later. "I've hit balls a lot farther. That guy got my goat that night. Obviously he had never seen me play."
Of course, Gwynn later was only too happy to share how the hit came about. He remembered every pitch sequence from Wells that night, how he dinked a good curve from Wells into leftfield for a hit-and-run single in his first at-bat, and how because of that he knew Wells would try to bust fastballs in against him thereafter. Gwynn grounded out on such a pitch at 2-and-2 in his next at-bat and hammered another inside fastball for the home run in his next appearance.
"A slide-step fastball in and I hit it good," he said. "I've hit balls better."
Come Wednesday, when Ripken and Gwynn attend a news conference that surely will bring questions about McGwire and steroids, and come July, when they are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and come all the summers when they return to Cooperstown and the back porch of the Otesaga Hotel to tell stories about outfield relays and hitting, Ripken and Gwynn will continue to serve as ambassadors. The way they played the game put them in the Hall of Fame, but the manner in which they represented it and shared it with us is Cooperstown quality, too.
Ripken and Gwynn will continue to stand for what's good about the game. They are the right men at the right time.