Talking A Good Game
Hall of Famers Gwynn, Ripken huddle on hitting
Posted: Friday July 6, 2007 11:21AM; Updated: Friday July 27, 2007 3:47PM
Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn combined to play 5,441 regular season major-league games, none of which involved the two of them playing against one another. Their lives and baseball careers ran parallel tracks all the way to Cooperstown. Born three months apart in 1960, they each played their entire careers with one team -- their hometown team -- before those careers ended one day apart in 2001, only to begin new careers in amateur baseball and ultimately to be honored on the same day this summer, July 29, with induction together into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Ripken and Gwynn are teammates for posterity now, Cooperstown classmates and baseball soulmates who have come to share a closeness their playing days did not make possible -- not including the occasional All-Star tour of Japan ("Forty-five minutes on the bus just to go around the block in Tokyo, you get to know somebody," Ripken said) or All-Star games, including the 1994 game in Pittsburgh that ended on a close play involving the two of them (their debate over exactly what happened, however, has not ended).
The Class of 2007 is also the class of their generation. Ripken, who actively runs Cal Ripken Baseball, a division of Babe Ruth Baseball, among his many business interests, and Gwynn, the coach at San Diego State, have continued to give back to the sport they cherish and respect.
Among all players in the free-agent era (post-1973), Ripken, the former Baltimore Orioles infielder, has the most hits (3,184) while spending his entire career with one team. Gwynn, the former San Diego Padres outfielder, ranks fourth on that list (3,141). George Brett of Kansas City and Robin Yount of Milwaukee stand between them.
Ripken and Gwynn, however, climbed to 14th and 18th, respectively, on the all-time hits list with styles and philosophies on hitting that often diverged. To explore those perspectives, and as a way to celebrate their induction into the Hall, Sports Illustrated arranged for Ripken and Gwynn to face one another -- not on a field but in a San Diego hotel conference room last April.
With SI Senior Writer Tom Verducci as moderator, Ripken and Gwynn talked hitting for more than an hour. They explored their similarities and differences, how hitting has evolved, how steroids came into influence, Barry Bonds, the next .400 hitter, and -- on this they did agree -- how they would like to be remembered. Listen up as Ripken and Gwynn take their cuts.
SI: You guys were very different in your setup to hitting. Cal, you were the man of a thousand stances. How did that come about?
Ripken: I had a little trouble hitting Len Barker. I came up once with runners on second and third, one out, and I needed to put the ball in play. I couldn't see his breaking ball. It was invisible. I'd check swing. I'd swing through it. I swear it disappeared. Eddie Murray came into the on-deck circle and I said, "Ed, I've got to put this ball in play, what do you think?" And he goes, "Well, now would be a good time to try something new."
I'm going, "Really? That's all? That's your advice?"
And I went up to the plate, spread out, spread my stance out, and was going to dive, take away that breaking ball. And Len Barker's first pitch hit me right in the back. And Eddie went on to win the game.
SI: When was this?
Ripken: Early on. Second [year] or so, I was a diver. I stood straight up and dove toward the outside corner and looked for the breaking ball. I wasn't afraid to stick my nose in there. But as you started to face people, I changed based on adjustments for the pitcher. Then, the same way you want to take away a knuckleballer, you don't want to stay back in the same way all the time, unless you're totally comfortable. With a knuckleball I moved up a little bit on the plate.
I made subtle adjustments. And over my career they became a little more than subtle. When I was struggling I had to tinker in batting practice. OK, my hands aren't working, so I'm going to start moving my hands, whether it's like [Gary} Sheffield or somebody else and then all of a sudden you feel something happen. And you don't know what it was but it would just pop. So I'd stay and work with that. Even sometimes I'd start laying my bat this way, sometimes this way, sometimes I'd lay it still. I would tinker with it until I felt it felt right and then just play it out.
And I honestly believe you can get yourself in trouble with a stance if it's too extreme. But a stance is just a starting point. The stance was to try to kick in your natural swing. Sometimes you try to force it, you want it too bad, you become a little mechanical, robotic.... That's why I didn't like videotape. A lot of people love it. I assume you [Tony] do. People would come and look at tape right after their at-bat.... Slow it down and really examine it. I wanted it to flow. It was inside of me. I wanted it to flow and by looking at that ... sometimes you may pick yourself up by looking at all the hits you got and it may give a different mindset in terms of lifting your confidence up but as a diagnostic tool, I didn't like breaking down to that level.
SI: Because it got you away from the 'feel' of hitting and became too mechanical?
Ripken: Yeah, it didn't feel like it was free and didn't flow and didn't get to the point where I could just pop it. I was copying something. I was trying to make it happened as opposed to feeling it and letting it happen.
Gwynn: I was exactly the opposite. I stood in the same spot in the batter's box, right in the middle, no matter who was pitching. Since Little League. Early on in my career I started with a closed stance and I had all kinds of trouble handling the ball in and eventually got it back to even. That's when we started using videotape. My wife started taping games. And the first time I looked at it I knew I was going forward. I couldn't hit the ball in because my body was going forward. So from that day really to the day I retired I pretty much had the same stroke, the same approach, the same setup.
SI: You used to travel with a whole audio/visual department of gear, didn't you?
Gwynn: Yeah, a big suitcase with a Sony recorder. Guys thought I was out of my mind. My regular two bags and this other suitcase, carrying it on the plane. And you know what? It's like Cal said: It's all about being comfortable. It's all about figuring out what you do and how you do it and trusting it. When I got to the plate I didn't care about the guy out there on the hill. It was more about, "Am I going to get in position to take the swing I want to take?" For me I tried to simplify it, because hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to do I think. But once you have an understanding of what you need to do every time you get up there, mentally it becomes easier because I'm trusting what I do.
Early on, as I was trying to figure out what I needed to do, early '80s, it was apparent to me to go look at it because that's what kind of helped me kind of figure out how I am and how I needed to do what I needed to do. But once I got to the point where I felt comfortable, '86, '87, then it just became a matter of trusting it. Once I got in the batter's box, you know how most kids when they first get to the big leagues you look at the newspaper and you see who's pitching today. I never worried about it because I knew what I needed to do -- not necessarily what he was going to try to do to me. In order to have success I needed to trust whatever it was I did.