Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn always will be linked by a splendid Sunday in July 2007, when baseball fans massed to celebrate all that was still good in the game.
The pair went into the Hall of Fame together — Gwynn, the voluble hitting wizard, and Ripken, the indestructible shortstop. They seemed to admire each other as much as the crowd appreciated them both.
So Ripken reacted with sadness Monday when news emerged that Gwynn had died at age 54 after an extended battle with cancer.
“This is an extraordinarily sad day,” Ripken said in a statement. “Tony was a Hall of Fame ballplayer but more importantly he was a wonderful man. Tony always had a big smile on his face and was one of the warmest and most genuine people I have ever had the honor of knowing. Like all baseball fans I will miss him very much and my thoughts are with his family today.”
A record crowd of 75,000 swarmed Cooperstown, N.Y., for the Ripken-Gwynn induction. Though most were Orioles fans, their appreciation for Gwynn was palpable as well.
It was a day to celebrate all the things fans want to believe about baseball. The sport was reeling from steroid scandals that had tainted some of its greatest stars. But Gwynn and Ripken seemed to represent a more innocent attachment to the game. They were rare single-franchise players, and though each man endured difficulties, fans never had to feel embarrassed about loving either.
“The Classiest Class” read a sign waved by one man in Cooperstown.
“I think the fans felt comfortable with us, because they could trust us,” Gwynn said that day. “They could trust the way we played the game.”