Friday, July 27, 2007
It wasn't always easy being the little brother
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- As Billy Carter, Roger Clinton, Daniel Baldwin, Tito Jackson and Ozzie Canseco can attest, it's not easy being the less heralded brother of a superstar.
Chris Gwynn and Billy Ripken can relate. Come Sunday afternoon, when they're sweating buckets in the summer heat on an open field in Cooperstown, they'll experience the same vicarious thrill previously enjoyed by Joe Niekro, Ken Brett, Tommie Aaron, Rich Murray, and Dom and Vince DiMaggio.
If history is a guide, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn will cite a multitude of influences at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. They'll pay tribute to parents who loved and nurtured them, coaches who inspired them, former teammates who supported them, and trainers and clubhouse attendants who taped their ankles and cleaned their spikes.
Ripken and Gwynn will also find time to mention brothers who provided competition and companionship along the way. The siblings share a space in their hearts and entries directly in front of them in the Baseball Encyclopedia.
Billy Ripken, right, played with his brother Cal for parts of seven seasons with the Orioles.
First, Chris Gwynn. He played 10 years in the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kansas City Royals and San Diego Padres and finished with 263 career hits -- or 2,878 fewer than his brother, the eight-time batting champion.
Next, Billy Ripken, who enjoyed a slightly more distinguished career. He played 12 seasons in the majors with Baltimore, Cleveland, Texas and Detroit. The highlights: He led the Orioles with a .291 batting average in 1990, and ranked first among big league second basemen in fielding percentage in 1992.
But no matter how many ground balls Billy Ripken gobbled up, he knew he would be judged against an impossible standard. He's 42 years old, and people still refer to him as Billy the Kid and Cal's little brother.
"It's really no big deal,'' Billy said by phone this week. "But I think with both Chris and myself, there were probably unfair comparisons or pressures or expectations put on us. That's just human nature. You can't change it, so you have to deal with it.''
Cal Ripken had his playful side as an Oriole, for sure. He was always a threat to jump out from behind a pillar and wrap an unsuspecting teammate in a wrestling hold, or lighten the mood with the old shaving-cream-in-the-jockstrap prank.
But Cal was soft-spoken and contemplative as a rule, in stark contrast to his little brother. Billy was the boisterous one, quick to apply the needle, and less reticent to express an opinion for fear of the fallout. He's the guy whose 1989 Fleer baseball card had to be recalled because an obscenity appeared on the knob of his bat.
Some things never change. As induction day approaches, Billy is adamant that Cal should be defined by more than his streak of 2,632 consecutive games played and membership in the 400-homer, 3,000-hit club. He's quite protective in this regard.
"The big thing I want people to realize is how good Cal was,'' Billy said. "I played with him and I know. Even in games when he didn't do anything in the box score, per se, he was still a damn good player who helped his team win.
"It's not about pure numbers. Certain so called 'experts' have said that if it wasn't for the streak, Cal wouldn't go into the Hall of Fame. As far as I'm concerned, those people are on crack.''
Growing up in Aberdeen, Md., the Ripkens lived a Mayfield-like existence, always headed to a different field, court or diamond for a new competition. During impromptu pickup games, Cal routinely chose his little brother first no matter who was available.
"A melding of kindred spirits,'' their mother, Violet, once described their relationship in a Washington Post story.
In 1982, when Cal won the AL Rookie of the Year award, Billy signed with Baltimore as an 11th-round pick. He played for manager John Hart during minor league stops in Bluefield, Hagerstown, Rochester and Charlotte before they both graduated to Baltimore -- Billy as a second baseman and Hart as a coach.
Hart remembers Billy as a "free spirit,'' within reason. In the Appalachian League, Billy once incurred a $25 fine for violating team rules. Contrite and apologetic, he went to Hart's office and meticulously began counting out fives, ones and spare change.
When Hart told him the matter could wait, Billy said he wanted to dispense with it immediately, because, "I don't want my father to know.'' Given Cal Ripken Sr.'s reputation as a tough customer, it was a prudent approach.
A few years later, during a road trip to Toledo, the desk clerk at the Bargain-Tel hotel called Hart's room at 3 a.m. and told him some guests were complaining about the noise emanating from Room No. 346.
"Would that happen to be Mr. Ripken's room?'' Hart asked.
"Yes," the clerk replied.
"I'll take care of it,'' said Hart, who went to the room in question, knocked on the door, and told a startled Billy to meet him at 6 a.m. in the hotel lobby, where they would go on a five-mile run.
Three hours later there was Billy, in his sweats and running shoes, ready to pay his penance.
Billy made it to the majors with Baltimore in 1987, and he will never forget the thrill of standing on the top step of the dugout with Cal and their father, then Baltimore's manager. It was only fitting that the Ripkens turned a double play in their first game. They spent so much time talking, thinking and living the game, they could communicate with the blink of an eye or a turn of the head -- or less.
Cal Sr. died in 1999, but the brothers remain a team. They've written a baseball instruction book, co-host a talk show on XM Satellite Radio, help run the Aberdeen IronBirds in the New York-Penn League and operate an expansive youth-baseball facility in their hometown.
Cal is the face of the Ripken brand, doing speaking engagements and charity appearances, while Billy has the luxury of spending more time on the field, talking to groups and passing along his baseball knowledge. He's a natural out there, entertaining the kids while he educates them.
Hart, to this day, believes that Billy Ripken was vastly underappreciated for his versatility, defensive skills and knowledge of the game. After becoming a big league general manager, Hart even tried to bring Billy to the majors as a coach in Cleveland and Texas.
"He was a big-time gamer who played the game the right way,'' Hart said. "I guarantee you this: Cal Sr. is as proud of Billy as he is of Cal Jr. Billy was just like him.''
Growing up Gwynn
There were actually three baseball-playing Gwynn brothers. Charles, a right-handed hitting outfielder, was good enough to be selected by Cleveland in the 31st round of the 1976 draft. Baseball never panned out, and he went on to a career as a teacher in the Los Angeles school system.
Chris Gwynn, right, and his brother Tony were teammates with the Padres in 1996.
Tony was born two years after Charles, in 1960, and Chris came four years later. Growing up in Long Beach, the Gwynns played ball in the backyard and took aim at a giant pepper tree that they labeled the "Green Monster.'' The Reds and Dodgers were rivals at the time, so the boys would stand in the box and emulate the swings of Ken Griffey, Dan Driessen, Reggie Smith and Rick Monday.
The Gwynns wore out wiffle balls, so they'd have to come up with alternatives. They would wrap socks in rubber bands, or wait for the figs to ripen and fall to the ground. The figs were shaped like light bulbs, so a skilled pitcher could make them do funny things.
"You had to let them get overly ripe so they were a little soft and they wouldn't bust,'' Chris said. "That was the key. When they were hard, they would explode.''
Chris was a star at San Diego State, where he outperformed teammate Mark Grace. He went to the Dodgers with the 10th overall pick in the 1985 draft, four spots after Pittsburgh selected Arizona State outfielder Barry Bonds.
But the Dodgers were a perennial contender and didn't have time to break in kids gradually. Chris settled into a role as a fourth or fifth outfielder and pinch-hitter extraordinaire, with cameo appearances in the spotlight.
When Montreal's Dennis Martinez threw a perfect game against the Dodgers in 1991, Chris Gwynn nearly ruined the festivities. He drilled a 1-1 fastball a foot foul in the ninth inning -- eliciting "oohs'' from the crowd -- before flying out to end the game.
Chris' career highlight came in San Diego in 1996, when he played in the same outfield as Tony for a pennant winner. He doubled home the winning run on the final day of the regular season to give the Padres the National League West title.
Chris Gwynn retired after that season and eventually gravitated to scouting. First he roamed high school fields as an area guy for the Padres, and now he patrols the Pacific Coast and California leagues. He's philosophical about the way things worked out.
"I would have loved to play more,'' he said, "but I made a lot of good friends and had a lot of good times. I don't have any regrets.''
Heck, even Tony thought about quitting once or twice only to be dissuaded by his mother, Vendella. It was poetic justice that Tony Gwynn recorded his 2,000th and 3,000th career hits on Aug. 6 -- Vendella Gwynn's birthday.
"When I tell people that, they never believe it,'' Chris said.
Pitcher Tim Belcher, who came to know Bill Ripken in passing over the years and played on teams with Chris Gwynn and Mike Maddux (Greg's older brother), never sensed that the lesser-known siblings were frustrated or embittered by their fate.
"They all impressed me as guys who were pretty comfortable in their own skins,'' Belcher said. "But they also have pretty extraordinary brothers who probably go out of their way to make them feel equal.''
There are always new lessons to pass along. Chris has forged a bond with his nephew, Tony Gwynn Jr., a Milwaukee Brewers outfielder who is bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues these days. They discuss the hazards of comparisons, and the need to avoid trying to meet everybody else's expectations.
"I pull for him like he's my own son,'' Chris said. "I really do.''
Here's one way to look at it: Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. were better than 99 percent of the people who've worn major league uniforms, so their younger siblings aren't exactly members of an exclusive club.
"You have to realize, with Cal and Tony, they're like freaks of nature,'' Chris Gwynn said.
When Billy Ripken was playing for Baltimore and one loudmouthed fan after another rubbed his nose in his brother's success, he discovered the best retort was to acknowledge the obvious.
"There was always somebody in the front row yelling, 'You'll never be as good as your brother,'" Billy said. "And I'd turn around and say, 'Yeah, no kidding.'"
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.