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AND HERE THEY COME, NOT QUITE ARM-IN-ARM, GIVEN that a continent divided them, but conjoined nonetheless in their twin devotion to work. Which two other players did 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 those 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 durability. And now, in an ever-obliging symmetry, they arrive at Cooperstown, if not arm-in-arm, certainly together.
They were more different than alike, of course. Aside from the timing of their careers, which now includes their simultaneous enshrinements, they followed opposite base paths. The more reserved Ripken revolutionized the shortstop position, demonstrating that middle infielders could produce more than just nicely turned double plays. His major-league-record 345 home runs as a shortstop (86 of his 431 total homers came as a third baseman) will always be overshadowed by his record-shattering 2,632 consecutive games played. Still, that first statistic 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 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 a solid base hit.
As a consequence Gwynn's 3,141 hits, nearly all in the service of average, produced eight National League batting championships. He batted under .300 only once, in his rookie year of 1982, and ended with a lifetime .338 mark, 20th-best in history. Ripken may have been more fastidious about his attendance, but he was by 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 ahead 2--0 in MVP awards.
Nonetheless, it is appropriate to celebrate their entry together, for as differently as they seem to have played, they actually played the same. 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 the 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 that 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, or maybe ever did, there was the inevitability of this day. Even without the statistical achievement, their insistence upon the wonder of baseball would have demanded to be acknowledged.
Ripken's career may have been the more captivating of the two because of his consecutive-game record. He would have been an important figure without it--he is, after all, one of only eight 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.
But Gwynn was equally obdurate, though he lacked a Gehrig-like milestone to prove it. His calculated attack on major league pitching was lifelong, scientific for those times, maniacally methodical and enormously successful over a very long run. He guessed early on that he might not hit 400 home runs but could possibly hit .400 and practiced the game accordingly. The fact that he came as close to the latter as he did is more proof of his dedication than anything else.