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One-team players a dwindling breed

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2007

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- There they sat yesterday, side by side, the two dinosaurs — Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn — in the auditorium at Cooperstown Central High School, talking about what it will be like to become museum exhibits tomorrow when they are inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"I hope it has some hair," the balding Ripken joked when asked what he thought his plaque would look like. When Gwynn was told the sculptor was working from an early photo of him, he said, "Uh, oh, bad Afro, bad mustache."

But one thing will be undisputable about the presentation of both Ripken and Gwynn in the Cooperstown museum — their identity as team baseball players, Ripken with the Baltimore Orioles and Gwynn with the San Diego Padres.

One of the decisions that the board of directors is charged with at the Hall of Fame is to determine what team will be represented when a player is inducted — what baseball cap will be portrayed. That has become more of a controversial and difficult issue for the Hall over the years, as some players will play for a number of teams throughout their careers.

These modern times of free agency and chasing the almighty dollar make Ripken and Gwynn the sort of players we may never see again.

Many teams — those who aren't the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox — can't afford to keep homegrown talent that their fans often identify with when it comes time to explore free agency. And star players have been pushed by their union over the years to go out on the free agent market and get the most money they can, with the idea that the star contracts hike up the market for all players.

When Wade Boggs finished the final two seasons of his career with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays — after spending 11 years with the Red Sox and five with the Yankees — there were reports that as part of his contract with Tampa Bay that Boggs had agreed to go into Cooperstown as a Devil Rays player. Boggs denied the reports, but in 2001, two years after he retired, the Hall changed its rule to reserve the right to choose which cap a player is immortalized in.

If and when Roger Clemens becomes eligible for the Hall after he retires, it may become an issue again. Will he don a Red Sox cap, representing where he started and played 13 seasons? Or will he wear a Yankees' cap, representing the team with which he won a World Series championship and has played for six seasons?

This year, though, was a no brainer for Hall officials because there were no other teams that either Ripken or Gwynn played for in their entire major league careers. Once that was commonplace. Today, they are dinosaurs.

"For me it was easy," Gwynn said. "I realized where I was was a place where I was happy. ... I grew up as a Dodger fan, and remembered that infield of [Steve] Garvey, [Bill] Russell, [Davey] Lopes and [Ron] Cey, all playing together, and that meant a lot to me.

"I am a Padre and always will be, and I'm pretty proud of that."

For Ripken, the decision to stay with one team also appeared to have been an easy one. Not only did he grow up in nearby Aberdeen, Md., but his father also served as a minor league manager with the Orioles, and later became a major league coach and briefly, the manager for the club.

"I was lucky to be drafted by the team that I wanted to be drafted by," Ripken said. "It was important to me to play in Baltimore, and throughout my career I valued being in a place where you want to be."

Still, there were times when that decision was much harder for Ripken than Gwynn. Ripken saw his father, Cal Sr., fired as the Orioles manager six games into the 1988 season. He was hurt by the move, and had the decision to explore free agency at the end of that year.

"But even in the worst of times like that, you fall back on your love of the game," Ripken said.

As painful as it was, Ripken loved being a member of the Baltimore Orioles more than making as much money as he could, just as Gwynn loved being a member of the San Diego Padres more than putting a few more dollars in his wallet.

According to one definition, the moment of extinction generally is considered to be the death of the last individual of that species. Today, as baseball celebrates Ripken and Gwynn, their species is one step closer to the end.