One beautiful spring training day in the mid-90s I asked Cal Ripken why baseball players were not getting the kind of national endorsement deals and warmth afforded NBA players. Ripken looked off into the blue sky for a moment, looked back at me and said, "That's an interesting question. Let me think about it and I'll get back to you with an answer. Are you going to be here tomorrow?"
I was a bit nonplussed, because ballplayers simply don't ruminate on things. Standard operating procedure calls for some quickly derived stock answer.
A few years later I was talking with Tony Gwynn, who was closing in on the 3,000th hit of his career, when I asked him if he remembered his 2,000th hit. Remembered? Gwynn remembered the attendance that night (a sellout), the ballpark promotion (Beach Towel Night), his at-bats in the first game of what was a doubleheader (3-for-3 against Armando Reynoso, followed by two intentional walks), the starter who held him hitless in the nightcap (Willie Blair, throwing what he called "a steady diet of doo-doo") and the reliever (Bruce Ruffin) who threw the pitch (a slider) for number 2,000 (a single, "right back up the box.") I resisted the temptation to ask him about the barometric pressure that night.
I'm not sure that Ripken and Gwynn will be forever linked in history simply because they are going into the Hall of Fame together. For instance, Sandy Koufax was enshrined in the same class as Yogi Berra, but who knows such a thing today? But I do know this: I am glad they are going in together, because as the dialogue for the game's greatest individual honor is consumed by who is not going in (Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, et al) and the pharmacology of baseball, you could not pick two men to represent the game better than Ripken and Gwynn.
I feared at first that their enshrinement might be diminished by the steroids debate. But in recalling their ambassadorship for baseball during and since their playing days, I believe their honor will be enhanced by such rattle and hum. Not only did Ripken and Gwynn serve only one organization with loyalty and respect, they also gave back to the game on its most important side, the amateur side, when the cheering stopped -- Ripken as the conscience and hands-on guide for Cal Ripken Baseball, a division of Babe Ruth Baseball, and Gwynn as the baseball coach at San Diego State.
If you don't like Ripken or Gwynn, you don't like baseball. It's that simple. I can say that because I have been fortunate to have enjoyed many conversations with these men over the years, and what always shined through was an abiding love of baseball and a natural ease and grace to share it with others.
You would be surprised how many ballplayers don't especially like baseball. I'm talking about guys who don't watch the World Series, who don't have a clue about the history of the game or what's going on around baseball. I've stopped being surprised by how many teams, while lounging in their clubhouse waiting for batting practice to begin, watch movies such as Happy Gilmore for the 39th time instead of a live ballgame being played elsewhere.