Tony and Cal
Two of baseball’s all-time greats are going into the Hall of Fame this month. Sometimes, there is crying in baseball.
BORN A BALTIMOREAN and now a San Diegan, I root fervently for both cities’ baseball teams. I’m one of those who hold baseball to be the very fabric of life. That means on July 29, there’s nowhere else I should be than Cooperstown, New York, where San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn and Baltimore Orioles icon Cal Ripken Jr. are being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
My best stories about crossing the paths of each are a little embarrassing. A few years ago, Gwynn is standing on the field at San Diego State University telling me my baseball swing is butt ugly. He’s agreed to give me a batting lesson——it’s the premise of a feature story I dreamed up and assigned myself. I even get professional pitching coach Bob Cluck to show up. The plan is for Cluck to throw me meaty fastballs out over the plate. A lefty like Gwynn, I’ll drive a couple deep into right field, impress him, and then he’ll show me how to get even more power into my swing.
The way it really plays out: Gwynn starts me hitting off a batting tee. He implores me to push the ball to opposite field——to hit it into the 5.5 hole; to squib it between the shortstop and third baseman, like he’s famous for doing. My attempts are feebly inadequate. When I suggest Cluck start throwing to me, Gwynn says no, if I can’t hit correctly off a tee, there’s no use seeing live pitching. In the story I write for this magazine (March 1998) about the batting lesson, I don’t come off as quite the hero I’d hoped.
As for Ripken: It’s a decade earlier, and I’m an eager cub sports reporter at the Annapolis Capital newspaper. An editor throws me a bone. I get to write the sidebar feature to that day’s Orioles game story. I get to the locker room early, because it closes to the media 45 minutes before game time. Our paper’s beat reporter is supposed to show me the ropes, but he’s late. I venture in alone. I spot Ripken talking to his father (Cal Sr. is the third-base coach —— he’s just been demoted from manager). I wait patiently for father and son to finish their conversation. Cal Sr. spots me and whips around. “What the $%#! are you doing here,” he begins, and introduces me to some new cuss words. Cal Jr. stands by stoically, his deep blue eyes staring off——perhaps at everyone in the clubhouse watching me receive this hail of off-color wordplay. (Seems I’d wandered into the players’ lounge, where media is verboten.)
Am I forever scarred by Gwynn’s stark assessment or the harangue witnessed by Ripken? Are you kidding? I was dressed down and dissed in the presence of Hall of Famers Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn.
CAMDEN YARDS in Baltimore, September 5, 1995: Ripken ties Lou Gehrig’s record of playing 2,130 consecutive games (he goes on to play 2,632 straight games——over 16 seasons——before finally sitting one out). His home run that night lands five rows in front of my right-field seat. After five innings (when a baseball game has lasted long enough to be declared official), the action is stopped for 20 minutes while fans stand and cheer. Actually, a nation cheers. Ripken is widely recognized for single-handedly resurrecting fan interest after the 1994 baseball strike.
Most San Diegans watch Gwynn get his 3,000th hit on television. On August 6, 1999, Gwynn strokes a single through the middle in the first inning of a Padres game played against the Expos in Montreal. I’m at Qualcomm Stadium soon after, when the Padres honor Gwynn for his monumental achievement. We all stand and cheer. And cheer.
Mel Proctor, the TV voice of the Orioles (1984-96) and the Padres (1997-2001), was on the air when Ripken topped Gehrig and when Gwynn hit the magical 3,000-hit plateau.
“Players like Tony and Cal are a dying breed,” says Proctor. “They each played for one team for their entire careers. They both had the most amazing work ethic. Players like Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens, they go where the money is. Tony and Cal went out of their way to stay in one place.”
The only time Gwynn thought of leaving San Diego was 2001, the physically frustrating season after which he retired. Ripken says he nearly left the team in ’88, right after the Orioles demoted his dad (also a bad year for cub sports reporters), but a cooler head prevailed.
“During his streak, Cal took infield [practice] every day,” says Proctor. “And he lifted weights after every game. He played a demanding position [shortstop], and he threw his body around. There was a big brawl on the field in Baltimore once, during his streak, and Cal was right there in it.
“Tony really revolutionized the video aspect of the hitting game. He used his own money to buy video equipment, so he could watch every one of his at-bats. Now every team does this, but it started with Tony. He worked hard every single day in the batting cages. He was there before everybody in the morning——every day.”
IT’S BEEN A COUPLE OF YEARS since I realized Ripken and Gwynn would enter the Hall together, and that I’d get to write this homage. At the computer in my office, I’m surrounded by relevant imagery. A framed Baltimore Sun front page hangs on the wall. It celebrates the day Ripken took over as baseball’s Iron Man. On a bookshelf behind my desk is a photo of Gwynn and me, from that day at SDSU when he tried to fix my swing. These Hall of Famers keep me on my toes every day——reminding me what a work ethic is all about.
I inform Ripken his image hangs on my wall, and ask him how he wants to be viewed by history.
“I always say that to be remembered at all would be nice,” says Ripken. “I guess I’d like to be remembered as a gamer. As someone who gave his all each and every day. And came to the ballpark ready to play and do whatever I could to help my team win.”
Ripken on Gwynn: “Tony is a wonderful person, and I’m excited to be entering the Hall of Fame with him . . . I believe Tony and I both placed a high value in being in one place for our entire careers. Most of the time a player doesn’t have a say in it, but it worked out for us.”
Gwynn says he modeled the way he interacted with fans after watching Ripken. “From afar, I realized he always left time for autographs,” he says. “I knew he was a great player, but I was more impressed with how he dealt with people.”
Ripken and Gwynn were very different types of hitters. Gwynn never changed his stance; Ripken was constantly tinkering with his. But both share a passion for a second sport——basketball. Both relate well with fans. And if Ripken is more guarded in his public comments, Gwynn gladly wears his heart on his sleeve.
“I’ve been retired five and a half years now, and I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘I loved the way you did this or that,’ so I know I left a mark,” says Gwynn. “But what got me to this point is good old-fashioned hard work, you know, being able to roll up your sleeves and go to work. My mom and dad went to work every day, and they said, ‘If you work hard, good things will happen.’ If I wanted to be successful at this sport, I had to work at it. Work hard. Pay your dues. And that goes for any walk of life.”
Gwynn says he’s been working hard on his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. “When I walk away from that podium, people are gonna know how I felt about what I did for a living,” he says. “I’ll be passionate. I’m gonna be emotional, and it’s gonna be hot out, but I can tell you right now it will be emotional . . . I could cry right now, actually.”
Not me. I’m not crying. I just have a piece of dirt in my eye, kicked up from life’s field of dreams.