Once again the integrity of our national pastime has, amidst the ruins of Balco Barry and other performance-enhancing junkies, been rescued by two athletes who represent everything that is good about the game of baseball.
With the induction of Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr. and San Diego's Tony Gwynn in the sport's Hall of Fame, not only is athletic prowess being properly recognized, but, likewise, team loyalty, love of the game and attention to fundamentals and preparation is being duly rewarded.
Ripken's statistics are impressive in themselves -- 3,184 hits and 431 homers -- but his likely unbeatable record of playing 2,632 consecutive games during his 21 seasons with the Orioles sets him apart from his Hall of Fame teammates. He made 19 All-Star games, twice was the American League MVP (1983 and 1991) and won eight Silver Slugger Awards for being the best offensive player at his position. He also won two Gold Gloves and proved that a big man -- 6-feet-4, 225 pounds -- could play a defensive position that had been dominated by smaller, faster types.
Likewise, Gwynn, a third-rounder out of San Diego State in 1981, started in Walla Walla, Wash., and played 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres where he won eight National League batting crowns, a record he shares with Hall of Famer Honus Wagner. He ranks 15th all-time with a .338 lifetime batting average and placed in the top 10 in every year in which he had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. He also won five Gold Gloves as an outfielder.
But statistics tell only part of the Ripken-Gwynn story.
While I always admired Gywnn, being a rabid Oriole fan gave me the rare privilege of seeing Ripken play many of those 2,632 games and admire his skills both in the batter's box and his wide-ranging ability at shortstop and adaptability at playing third base in the twilight of his career.
When one takes into consideration, however, the human side of Ripken, it is when one begins to see what a truly remarkable example he was not only for the game of baseball but for young would-be players.
"All I really try and do is live up to my potential and do as well as I possibly could and to bring to the ballpark each and every day a good effort and do the best that I could each and every day," he recently told a group of Baltimore Sun sports writers.
"So looking back on it and reflecting, which is where I am now, it brings you back to some of those moments and some of those accomplishments. And, obviously, being elected to the Hall of Fame is the ultimate. It is a collection of what you were able to accomplish.
"It's fun" he reflects, "to look back on your career and look at those team moments. By far, the best moment of my big league career was when I caught the last out at the World Series (in 1983). Of all the great things that had happened, catching the last out at the World Series and having that feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment that comes over you at that moment, none of those other individual moments come close to.
"The best human moment ... was the lap around Camden Yards [during the 2,131st consecutive game]. It was very spontaneous. I didn't want the game to be interrupted that long out of respect of the players of the other team, the fans for the game. You should get the game going and celebrate after the game. When I was pushed down the line, that celebration turned into a celebration that was very one-on-one, and one that was very heartfelt. It's great when everyone is clapping for you, 50,000 strong, all of these personal moments that occurred around that lap, including an interaction with my dad, the personal family there, the California Angels, my teammates and everyone else that I was able to touch. That was probably the best human moment."
One moment as a Ripken fan I shall always cherish came during an Oriole game in Kansas City, Mo. The Orioles were playing a twilight game against the Royals, which was preceded by a local semi-pro team playing the all-women's Silver Bullets team. Upon completion of the game I saw Ripken talking with the Silver Bullets' third baseman while at the same time autographing her bat.
Flash forward to the night of the 2,131 and in one post-game interview the same third baseman related how Ripken had sat in the Silver Bullets' dugout in the late innings of their game and after watching their game with great interest discussed playing third base and hitting with the appreciative woman after the game.
But the night in Kansas City was not over. I had decided that I would make an attempt to get Ripken's autograph after the game yet when the game ended an immediate crowd of kids gathered around the Oriole dugout. For the next hour or so that night Ripken tirelessly signed autographs for those kids. Watching the kids appreciation I didn't have the heart to try and muscle in for my autograph.
In recent years there has been much talk about Ripken, already busy with conducting baseball camps and heading up a couple of minor league teams, putting together a group of investors and buying up the Oriole franchise. To those who of us who have witnessed the current owner Peter Angelos almost single-handedly ruin one of baseball's once great franchises we can only hope that Ripken's buyout will come sooner rather than later.
For assuredly Ripken will revive the "Oriole way" of playing baseball with its stress on paying attention to fundamentals, preparation and playing the game for the sheer joy and fun of playing baseball. It won't be the first time that Ripken came to the game's rescue, as the Washington Post's outstanding sports columnist Tom Boswell reminds us.
"As Barry Bonds stalks Hank Aaron all summer, like Rambo on Bambi's trail, Ripken is positioned to steal the stage: the accidental antidote, the hero by happenstance. In '95, after the sewage spill of a canceled World Series, baseball needed a stench-free symbol of dependability, a hometown boy who understood responsibility and an adult who grasped that players simply were custodians of a game owned by its fans.
"The sport got all those things, as the Orioles shortstop broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. Now history is seeking him out again. The steroid-soaked stage is set. Baseball's need for a man with a simple sense of honor is profoundly obvious. Cue Cal. Now we realize that all those years when it never crossed Cal's mind to skip even a single game, something else never crossed his mind either -- cheating."
Thus it was perhaps that one of the most fitting tributes to Ripken came from Gwynn at the press conference announcing their induction into the Hall of Fame. "To me, he is what you want your kids to grow up to be ... We all know about The Streak and we all know about his exploits on the field, but to me the thing that showed me the way was the way he handled people ... He just has a way of getting you to relax and wanting you to feel the way he feels about things.
"After '94, believe me, I wasn't quite sure we were going to be able to get the fans back," Gwynn said. "I think Cal is the one who led the way. He showed us how you are supposed to deal with people. And we all followed. We might not have talked about it, but we all followed.
"And I think the game is in a much better position because of guys like Cal Ripken Jr."
A.V. Krebs publishes the online newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner, email email@example.com. He is author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness.
Subscribe to The Progressive Populist