COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – It began for Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn on the bus that heaved down the narrow roads here early Sunday afternoon, past the single-family white houses with the signs out front: "Parking $40." For that, you could get a 5-foot-by-10-foot piece of front lawn for four or five hours. One industrious couple charged $370,000 for parking, which sounded like a lot, but they offered to kick in the house for free.
The great green meadow that holds a nice little event on the final Sunday of every July was jammed, tree line to tree line, fence to fence, loyalty to loyalty, San Diego to Baltimore. Working off aerial photos and previous counts, state troopers estimated the crowd that fanned from the Hall of Famers' stage at 75,000, more than ever had come, and 35 times the population of Cooperstown.
The sight of all those people, all those jerseys, all those signs, made the old-time players marvel aloud. In all their years here, they'd never seen such a thing.
And so they gasped and blurted things like, "They're all the way up the hill! I've never seen 'em all the way up the hill."
Across the aisle, Gwynn half-believed they were goofing on him, stoking the nerves of having to stand up and clear his throat and introduce himself.
But it was true. These two guys, in this era, having not hit a baseball in nearly six years, drew. They drew like no others have.
"It's a great testament to baseball's popularity, no doubt about it," commissioner Bud Selig said, "and what it means to people."
Who knows when it began for the guy and his family in the brown Econoline with the Maryland plates and the sign in the rear window, "Cooperstown here we come. No. 8 rules!" Or when it began for the woman who held a California license plate aloft, "MR PADRE." Or the thousands out in that lawn who chanted "Toe-NEE! Toe-NEE!" Or the tens of thousands who came all the way from Baltimore to scream "O!" in the middle of Gwynn's daughter's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
But it seemed that sometime recently, in the time it takes to request a few days away from work, to secure lodging somewhere in upstate New York, to gas up the Econoline, the 2007 Hall of Fame induction ceremony became not a ceremony at all, but a pilgrimage.
The two sweating former ballplayers on the stage served their two decades, preserved their health, accumulated their 3,000 hits, and by any measure belonged side by side on this day, flanked by Mays and McCovey and Winfield and Killebrew. They represent not only good baseball, but, in their cities, baseball itself.
And this is where, I think, it began for all of them.
There is a way to play, and a way to conduct oneself.
"I think so. Honestly, I do," Gwynn said. "I think the fans felt comfortable enough with us they could trust us. They could trust the way we played the game, especially in this era of negativity. Apparently the writers felt that way, too. There's no way I'm a 97-something-percent guy."
The game needed a break from all that chased it into the 21st century. It needed a reliable man, a familiar face, an uncontested career and an unburdened conscience with which to celebrate it. Lucky for baseball, it got two.
"We make a big deal about work ethic," Gwynn said, "about trying to make good decisions and doing things right. And you know what? That's what we're supposed to do. When you sign your name on the dotted line, there's more than just playing the game of baseball. I think if you look out here today, you see all these people out here today, they love the game, too. … Those people who pay to watch you go out and play, you've got to be responsible and make decisions and show people how things are supposed to be done."
The people cheered. Oh, how they've needed to hear that. Oh, how they've longed for accountability, for more like Gwynn, for players who make themselves better through will and humility.
"I know some of you look back at The Streak as an accomplishment," Ripken said. "And while I appreciate it, I just look at it as showing up to do your work every day. Teachers, mothers, fathers, businesspeople, many others. You may not receive the accolades that I did through my career. So I'd like to salute you all for showing up, working hard and making the world a better place. Thank you all."
And they cheered again. Oh, how they've wished to be viewed as equals, as valued pieces of society rather than dollar-a-head profits and the saps of the steroid era. How they have longed for more like Ripken, the man who did his job for the betterment – rather than at the expense – of everyone else.
So, yeah, of the 63 living Hall members, 55 attended. Hank Aaron did not, but he hasn't for years. About the time Bob Gibson took his seat, and Sandy Koufax took his, and Eddie Murray took his, word spread that Barry Bonds indeed would play out in San Francisco, and take his swing at Aaron.
It hardly registered. Instead, we watched Ripken break down at the mention of his children, choke at the sight of his son, Ryan, delivering a white flower to his wife. We watched Gwynn look into the cameras and comfort his mother, who'd come all the way from Long Beach, only to take ill and remain back in the hotel room.
"I love you," he told her. "Thank you for coming. Don't feel bad about not being here. I love you."
Finally, after the ceremony, Gwynn and Ripken nearly had completed their weekend. They were asked about all that was happening in San Francisco, how they felt about it, how it rubbed up against their afternoon.
"What a great day today was," Gwynn responded, his smile running off for the first time in maybe six months. "Seventy-five thousand people. Unbelievable."
And that's where it began for Ripken and Gwynn.