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Baseball heaven with two immortals

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

Career highlights:

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Cal Ripken
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Tony Gwynn


WATCH VIDEO: Tony Gwynn reflects on his career, his induction and his influences. (Getty)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn sat shoulder to shoulder on the stage of a school auditorium here Saturday afternoon, while a few blocks away very small pockets of families wore orange 8's and yellow 19's and chipped at Italian ices with tiny wooden paddles.

Ripken wondered if the woman sculpting his plaque might not be convinced to grant him some hair. Gwynn momentarily was jarred to learn his own likeness would be reproduced from an old photo. "Uh-oh," he said, "bad afro, bad mustache. That's scary, man." Downtown, beneath the stoplight (it dangles over the intersection of Main and Chestnut), harried weary parents gripped their sons' and daughters' hands and scurried across, joining the masses who strolled between the confection and souvenir shops and bunting.

Gwynn recounted his morning round of golf at Leatherstocking Golf Course, he and his brothers unintentionally fouling souvenir balls into the woods and ponds, and how proud his father would have been to join his three boys on such a glorious day. "I wish my dad could be here," he said. "I really do."

Ripken surrendered to thoughts of his own father, his own brother. "Dad didn't make us into big-league players," he said. "He just showed us the joy that is baseball."

At a barbecue joint up the road, a dad patted a chair beside him, summoning his young son. "You'd better sit over here if you want to see the Mets game," he told him, and on the television in the corner the Mets went ahead 1-0.

Wearing a white shirt, blue ball cap, sunglasses on the brim, Gwynn revealed, "A calmness has come over me. …… It is unbelievable. This place is truly unbelievable."

Ripken, in a charcoal gray blazer and a print shirt, open at the collar, turned and said, "I think it's a bit nerve-wracking myself."

They laughed together, the two men who today are crossing the threshold of the Hall of Fame as full members, two men who shared a two-decade-long grind with a continent between them, which really was no distance at all. Up the hill on Main Street, in the pretty little rental I'm living staying in for the weekend, a row of hardbacks covers a few feet in the living room. There, beside coffee-table picture books of Picasso, Van Gogh and Degas, appropriately wedged among them, an illustrated history of baseball.

Life isn't really like this. But that's why they come.

So it can be like this for a few days.

The clouds are heavy here. Friday saw plenty of rain, with more possibly coming today, leaving air that does not swirl as much as it drapes, even on the banks of Lake Otsego. Ripken hosted a gathering there Friday night, drawing former teammates –-- Brady Anderson, Joe Orsulak, B.J. Surhoff, others –-- friends, family and a few baseball writers. Just after dusk, the children waved sparklers, so that they glowed when they circled the pool and stomped off through the damp brush.

Gwynn attended a party, where he met the wife of Eddie Mathews. Mathews, whose Hall class was inducted 29 years ago, died in 2001. Judy Mathews promised Eddie she would continue to attend these weekends and so she has, and Gwynn was touched. Then, on a bus moving him from one function to another, he sat beside Bruce Sutter, about to conclude his rookie year in the Hall. Sutter was grateful Sunday would be Gwynn's day to stand up in front of all those people, to jam a career and a life into a handful of three-by-fives, and then try not to go all to pieces.

"I'm calm," Gwynn insisted. "I can't believe how calm I am."

Standing alone on the stage before Gwynn and Ripken appeared, looking out at an audience of reporters, Hall official Brad Horn requested that questions be limited to "this weekend's focus," and no one objected.

This is so far from that, for now.

So, instead, the men of the Class of 2007 joked and smiled and wondered where their hair went and poked each other's shoulders. They are from Baltimore and San Diego and nowhere else, pure ballplayers and nothing else, who stood the inflexible tests of day-to-day greatness and generation-long commitment. They'd met 21 years ago on a plane to Japan, then reunited 6½ months ago when their telephones rang a few minutes apart, the notification they'd share one more trip.

They landed here, on a stage made of wooden beams and perseverance.

"I've learned more in the last 6½ months about Cal and how his mind ticks," Gwynn said. "He's 24-7." He twirled his fingers near his head. "This thing," he said, "is always ticking."

Ripken nodded. This made sense. They like each other. "This is going to be a joy, a pleasure," he said, "to go in with Tony."

Not far away, a ballgame was being played at the little ballpark in town, Doubleday Field. From the road, the stands appeared full, the backs of the fans in the bleachers resting against a chain-link fence. There were orange 8's and yellow 19's in there. They were everywhere on a perfect weekend.

And if it does rain today, it will be all the more remarkable, as it will fall from cloudless skies.