Updated: July 29, 2007
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Cal Ripken Jr.'s blue eyes gazed out the window as the bus neared the Hall of Fame induction ceremony -- where the biggest speech of his life loomed before him -- and it suddenly hit home that he would be sharing his day with more than just friends and relatives.
The veterans love to make the newcomers squirm, so the wisecracks became more pronounced with each turn of the wheels. "Look, the crowd is all the way back on the hill," said one established Hall of Famer. "I've never seen this many people here."
But this time it was no joke. An estimated crowd of 75,000 people -- or 25,000 more than the previous record high for the Nolan Ryan-George Brett-Robin Yount induction ceremony in 1999 -- surged onto the grounds at the Clark Sports Center to pay tribute to Ripken and Tony Gwynn on Sunday.
The fans brought lawn chairs and homemade signs, dressed in Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres T-shirts, and occupied every square inch of available real estate. Upstate New York hasn't been this hopping since the mass pilgrimage to Max Yasgur's farm in 1969, when it was all about love, Janis Joplin and dropping acid, rather than baseball.
"I thought the guys on the bus were just messing with us to make us nervous," Ripken said. "But I kept looking at it, and I was amazed and overwhelmed. There was a sea of orange."
Cooperstown is about a six-hour drive from Baltimore, where Ripken played for 21 seasons and earned the everlasting respect of Orioles fans for his work ethic. And it's a cross-country flight from San Diego, where Gwynn held Padres fans in his spell for two decades.
But what's a little gas money or the price of a plane ticket between friends?
Ripken never missed a day of work from May 30, 1982, through Sept. 19, 1998, so the least his admirers could do was pay through the nose for hotel rooms. As for Gwynn, he hit .300 for 19 consecutive years, and that kind of reliability warrants an emotional investment in return. One Padres fan in the crowd waved a sign with the inscription: "3000 Miles 4-1 Hero."
As Bob Feller pointed out earlier this weekend, "There are three kinds of Hall of Famers -- borderline, ordinary and major Hall of Famers. These guys both belong in the major category."
Still, the Ripken-Gwynn lovefest was as much about turning back the clock as gushing over statistics. This was a day to stow references to the Mitchell investigation, Curt Schilling's distaste for Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco's furtive references to Alex Rodriguez's off-field training habits. It was time to return to a day when players spent their entire careers with one franchise and didn't shy away from the label of "role model."
Gwynn, an inveterate 9-to-5er, agreed with a reporter who wondered if the record turnout might have been a statement on how baseball fans view the game today and want their icons to behave.
"Cal and I played for one team in one city, and I think fans felt comfortable with us because they could trust us," Gwynn said. "They could trust how we played the game and conducted ourselves -- especially in this era of negativity. Hopefully they feel like we did it the right way."
Gwynn was a bundle of nerves from the outset, watching his daughter, Anisha, sing the Canadian and American national anthems. He maintained his composure in part through the guidance of recent inductee Gary Carter, who advised him to ignore the countless faces before him and just stare at the trees in the distance.
The 27-minute speech was typical Gwynn -- chatty, conversational, and spraying comments to all fields. Gwynn spoke of Ted Williams' influence on him as a hitter and reflected on his boyhood days of swinging at figs and rolled-up socks in the backyard with his brothers Charles and Chris.
Gwynn drew his biggest round of applause when he talked about his sense of duty and meticulous approach to the game.
"I'm a big believer that when you sign your name on a dotted line, there's more than just playing the game of baseball," Gwynn said. "There's a responsibility when you put on that uniform to the people who pay to go watch you play."
Ripken, who crafted his speech with the help of his long-time agent, Ron Shapiro, managed to thank his mother and late father without breaking down in tears, but had to pause and collect his emotions when expressing his love for his two children, Ryan and Rachel, and his wife, Kelly.
Ripken displayed a touch of legerdemain that would have made Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel proud. At one point, he pulled a white rose from the pocket of his suit coat, looked into the crowd and said, "Ryan, I might need a little help transporting this."
Presto -- Ryan Ripken pulled a white rose from his coat pocket and handed it to his mom beside him. Penn and Teller couldn't have done it better.
"I didn't think I could say the words," Ripken said later. "It was very similar to when I proposed to my wife. I made a sign of Christmas lights and pulled a switch and it said, 'Will you marry me?' I started thinking, 'How can I create a message that has a lot of meaning?' "
Ripken delivered another, equally powerful message on the power of celebrity. He recalled an incident early in his career when he threw his helmet after a strikeout. Teammate Ken Singleton made him watch the video replay and asked him, "How does that look?" From that point forward, Ripken was a walking tutorial on comportment for Little Leaguers throughout the state of Maryland.
"As the years passed, it became clear to me that kids see it all," Ripken said. "Whether we like it or not, as big leaguers, we are role models. The only question is, will we be positive or will it be negative."
As single-franchise, 3,000-hit fixtures, Ripken and Gwynn have been portrayed as dinosaurs, but they'll have company in Cooperstown in the years to come.
It won't be long before Houston's Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio appear on the ballot. Then Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Albert Pujols and others could carry on the tradition. But we might never see two men who played so well for so long and meant so much to the fiber of a community sharing the same stage.
Now that the speeches are over, the new inductees can bask in the glow of their new fraternity while escaping the burdens of membership. In their post-induction press conference, Gwynn and Ripken politely declined to comment on Barry Bonds' controversial run at Hank Aaron's 755. They've only been asked about it a thousand and one times since January.
Gwynn, who estimates that he sweated his way through "eight or nine towels" in the midsummer heat, is already looking forward to returning to Cooperstown in July 2008. He plans to stake out a rocking chair on the back porch of the Otesaga Hotel and enjoy the view.
"Next year, I'm going to sit on that bench right out by the lake with a cigar and pretend like I'm somebody," Gwynn said.
Hall of Famers don't have to pretend.