In a sports era when most fans are left rooting for jerseys and logos rather than the players whose personalities give teams a distinct character, when the owners of those jerseys and logos care more what happens to the "bottom line" than to what happens between the lines, and when cities and fans are left to pick up the tab for these owners insatiable edifice complex, it is both poignant and exciting to see players and teams embody all the best aspects of sports while remaining populist in character.
Fans of what was once lovingly referred to as America's favorite pastime -- baseball -- have had a unique opportunity this 2001 season, which is now heading into the league playoffs and the World Series, to honor and admire two very unique players -- Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr. and San Diego's Tony Gwynn.
Likewise, they have had the thrill of witnessing the winning ways of a ball club -- the Seattle Mariners -- which has recaptured for the game the definition of what a team should be all about -- "a group of persons joined together in an action, especially in a game."
Future Hall of Famers Ripken and Gwynn are now retiring and leaving a legacy that may well never be matched while the Mariners are showing every promise of being a team for the ages.
Ripken's accomplishments on the field are legendary. In 2000 he became only the seventh player in major league history to reach the 3,000 hit and 400 home run plateau, joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, long-time friend and teammate Eddie Murray, Stan Musial, Dave Winfield & Carl Yastrzemski.
He was elected starting third baseman for American League All-Star team in 2001, his 19th consecutive All-Star nomination and his 17th election, breaking Rod Carew's record. He led the major leagues in voting for the All-Star Game four times (1985, '86, '92, and '95) and was the game's Most Valuable Player in both 1991 and 2001. He was also the AL's MVP in 1983 and 1991 and made the final out in the Orioles 1983 World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
He set major league records for most HR (345) and extra-base hits (855) by a shortstop and his .996 fielding percentage in 1990, was the highest by a shortstop in major league history.
But perhaps the record Ripken will be the most remembered for, whose career spanned the years 1981-2001, is his extraordinary major league record for consecutive games played (2,632) and consecutive innings played (8,243), a record that will undoubtedly remain forever in the annals of baseball.
As a fan who has had the privilege of watching first-hand Ripken's career unfold I often reflect now as his career on the field is coming to an end how during all those years when he played day in and day out one almost took him for granted, always there to get the key hits, to make the wide-ranging plays he often made at shortstop with his slingshot throws to first base, the efficient way he handled double plays, his quiet leadership, his preparedness, his work ethic, all truly reflecting what Baltimore fans like myself came to know as the "Oriole way."
"Cal has always conveyed an image that accurately reflects how he lives his life. And it's so powerful that it compels admiration and, more important, respect. People want to live their lives the way he acts," said Don Fehr, head of the players union. "After what happened [in the 1994 baseball strike], we needed a symbol of how to act toward fans and the game. We could not have asked for a better one."
Entering the major leagues, just one year after Ripken first appeared in a Oriole uniform, Tony Gwynn has also established himself as one of the all-time greats of the game. Playing in over 2400 games, with over 3100 hits and a lifetime batting average of .338, Gwynn was an eight-time National League batting champion, with 17 seasons batting over. 300. In year 2001 he was selected for the 16th time on the NL All-Star squad.
Not only have both men established exceptional records, but they are in the truest sense of the word, franchise players, not in terms as the expression is so commonly used today as to denote team's high salaried players, but in the fact that both Ripken and the Padres Gwynn played their entire major league careers with but one team.
In that process they have not only endeared themselves to their city's fans but they have also generously given of themselves to those communities in which they have played and lived.
Ripken, for example, has already begun work on a complex in nearby Aberdeen, Md., his birthplace, which will include a youth baseball academy with dormitory housing, a 6,500-seat minor league stadium, a youth stadium modeled after Oriole Park at Camden Yards and other fields that are also modeled after famous major league stadiums. In 2000, the Babe Ruth youth league named its largest division after Ripken, and he will increase his involvement with the league after he retires.
"The last few years, there's been a pull to do other things and be challenged by other things," he said. "The more stuff you get involved with away from the field, the more you discover what energizes and challenges you. Baseball has always done that for me. But in recent years there have been other things that energize me. ... The difference you can make is potentially out of this world. And that's the thing I'm really interested in."
Ripken also has made no secret of his desire to run a major league organization, similar to basketball superstar Michael Jordan's role with the National Basketball Association's Washington Wizards. For many Oriole fans having a Ripken, knowledgeable both in baseball and the "Oriole way" running the Baltimore franchise would be a welcome change from the disastrous regime of current owner Peter Angelos.
After Ripken, 41, takes his last at-bat September 30 at Yankee Stadium, he will embark on a new calling as an organizer and spokesman for a youth initiative designed to reinvigorate interest and improve instruction in the game that has made him a hero.
Ripken believes simpler is better and less can be more. He remains guided by his father Cal Ripken Sr., long-time Oriole coach and one-time manager, oft stated creed about baseball: "It's a simple little game; we humans make it more complicated."
Nor, as the Baltimore Sun's Joe Strauss notes, is Ripken enamored with the current tone of youth instruction. "He has seen the contorted faces of obsessive parents. He's heard the pressure placed on sixth-graders by shouts from the bleachers. 'Most people think the path to the major leagues starts professionally in youth leagues. I want to get away from people thinking that they're professional baseball players when they're eight years old,' Ripken says. 'In some places, they play 12 months out of the year. There's a saturation. Kids need a balance in life. If you do anything too much, it's not enjoyable. And when you kill it, it's hard to bring it back.'"
Meanwhile, as the Washington Post's William Gildea reports in the waning days of his illustrious career "Ripken has attracted large crowds, received tumultuous ovations, signed countless autographs and even hit home runs as if on demand. In turn, he has received numerous gifts, everything from an old stadium seat and a vial of dirt from the shortstop's position to a parade at Disneyland to solicit contributions to the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation."
"I remember one sign," Ripken recalls. "It was just a simple 'Bye.' It was a small girl, no more than five. Somewhere along the line it was important to her parents or someone, and they passed it on to her. Just holding that one sign up, it was pretty powerful."
"The memory of the small girl," Gildea continues, "in Chicago, and other images of friendship expressed from coast to coast have touched the normally stoic 'Iron Man' and suggested to him that his long farewell is a good thing both for him and the fans."
"For me it's a chance to say goodbye," he said. "For a lot of people, it gives them an opportunity to say goodbye as well. So far it's been wildly energetic, almost like a World Series atmosphere.
"I'll defer that right to the end," Ripken told Gildea. "I'll sit down and reflect and I guess I'll try to sum my feelings up. If it's planned, I'm sure I'll be thinking about it as much as a week before.
"I think the reality of the decision has hit me. As time is starting to wind down, I've noticed some of the highlight boards, videos, kind of extracting a more emotional response from me. Sometimes I catch myself. I would imagine as it gets closer certain things like that will cause the emotions to come out a little stronger.
"It's a way to bring closure. It's a way to say goodbye. That's the biggest benefit to me, to say goodbye."
It is rather ironic in one of those strange quirks so unique to baseball that Ripken, the ultimate franchise player, the ultimate team player should be the boyhood idol of Texas Ranger shortstop Alex Rodriquez, who has come to symbolize players willing to forsake fan-devoted cities like Seattle and teams like the Mariners for an obscene salary.
As Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports columnist Laura Vecsey noted when Rodriquez signed his ten-year $252 million contract, "Rodriguez really never did know where he wanted to go. He just knew what it would take to get him. It wasn't a World Series. It wasn't a stocked farm system. It wasn't a team built on pitching and defense.
"He just wanted someone to make him feel good. To shower him in money.
"Well, money won't kill the giant bugs that swarm The Ballpark in Arlington. Money won't blunt the August heat that smothers to death pennant dreams in Dallas. Rodriguez got his money. What he lost was his reputation, his good name, his legacy. Will it be worth the trade-off? We'll never know. The man formerly known as A-Rod will never have the guts to admit it."
Vecsey, however was wrong on one point. The Texas Rangers, woefully lacking in pitching, saw its "pennant dreams" smothered long before August in the American League's Western Division while Rodriquez's former team, whose hallmark in the 2001 season has been every man on its roster contributes, got off to a winning start that ranked with baseball's all-time best, while A-Rod was posting impressive individual statistics, but contributing little to salvage the Ranger's horrendous season.
Probably no other moment in the Mariner's incredible season best symbolized their success as a team and spoke volumes about its character than on Sept. 4 when they were playing an extra inning game with the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
With the game tied at 2-2 Seattle's Norm Charlton walked the Devil Rays Ben Grieve on a close 3-2 pitch with one out, then gave way to Jose Paniagua. Against the right-hander, Russ Johnson hit a grounder to David Bell at third base that could have been an inning-ending double play. Instead, Bret Boone couldn't get the ball out of his glove on the Bell relay and never made the throw to first. Given the reprieve, the Devil Rays got five consecutive hits off Paniagua and scored six times in the inning to pull out an 8-3 win.
In the bottom of the tenth, however, Boone hit his 32th home run of the season as a second baseman, which tied him with the Cleveland Indians' Joe Gordon's 1948 record of home runs for an AL second baseman. Immediately, after returning to the dugout, a still angry Boone approached the despondent Paniagua sitting on the bench, cuddled his head in his arm and emotionally apologized to the pitcher for not executing the double play.
As baseball teams are being increasingly viewed by many of its owners as simply drawing cards for their multi-million dollar taxpayer-financed entertainment centers, one can only hope that teams like the 2001 Seattle Mariners will inspire and be a model for the future of the game.
At the same time, despite having to say an ardent farewell to immortals like Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, traditional baseball fans appreciation for these two men's love of the game and their dedication and indomitable spirit will forever remain as long as the game is played.
A.V. Krebs is dedicated baseball aficionado who current lives and works in Everett, Wash.