This weekend, two great baseball players, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
It's a little startling-- these are guys who are about my age-- I was born in 1961, they were both born in 1960. It's odd to see players you watched play, like them and Ryne Sandberg, retire and go to the Hall of Fame.
They were immensely talented players. Gwynn regularly led the major leagues in batting average, sometimes coming close to batting .400 (for you non-baseball fans, batting over .300 is very good, batting .330 or .340 is incredible). He wasn't a home run hitter-- he never hit more than 17 in a season-- but he never batted lower than .309. Ripken was known as "The Iron Man," breaking Lou Gehrig's 56-year-old consecutive game record of 2,130 games. Ripken ended up shattering that record, playing 2,632 straight games! A baseball season is about 160 games long. That means he played about 16 and a half straight seasons without missing a game. This was all the more remarkable in that he played most of his career at shortstop, one of the most physically demanding positions.
Both players finished their careers over the 3,000 hit milestone: Gwynn had 3141 career hits and Ripken had 3184.
Both, incidentally, were part of teams that defeated Chicago teams in the playoffs; Ripken's Baltimore Orioles knocked the Chicago White Sox out of the playoffs and went to the 1983 World Series, and the San Diego Padres did the same to the Cubs in 1984.
There was something special about these two. First, they played for "small market" teams. One of the problems in major league baseball is that teams with "big markets" like New York and Los Angeles (and, supposedly, Chicago) have more money to work with and can buy talent away from smaller markets like Pittburgh, Toronto-- and San Diego and Baltimore. Gwynn and Ripken chose to stay with these teams, rather than vault off to the Yankees or Mets. And they stayed a long time-- they played their entire long careers (Gwynn, 1982-2001, and Ripken, 1981-2001) on the same team. You won't see much of that anymore.
They played with class and respect for the game-- and the fans.
In a few years, the Hall will have some choices to make. It's been assumed in the past that any player who hits five hundred home runs will eventually make the Baseball Hall of Fame. The steroids controversy in the last decade has challenged that assumption.
In the next week or so, Barry Bonds will tie and then break Hank Aaron's record for lifetime home runs. Aaron hit his 755 home runs over a 23 year career. He endured stupid racist threats as he approached Babe Ruth's record of 714 career home runs. Yet he played with grace and a respect for the game and its fans. Bonds, on the other hand, has shown contempt for the game, with his steroid use, and clearly disdains the fans. Blogger Phil wrote an excellent post on what he thinks are Bonds' motives for this, earlier this year on a sports blog he contributes to.
Whatever Bonds' motives, Hank Aaron still has class. When Bonds hits his 756th home run, Aaron will undoubtedly graciously and unironically congratulate Bonds. And at the end of this season, Bonds will probably retire, and in five years, the Baseball Hall of Fame will have a decision to make: whether or not Barry Bonds belongs in the same Hall as Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken.