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 durability.
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 ahead.
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 502 straight.
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 picture."
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 line-up 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?"