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Commentary: Baseball Loses Two of Its Best Ambassadors

Tampa Bay Rays players wear a Brooklyn Dodgers replica jersey and patch honoring senior baseball advisor Don Zimmer before a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners Saturday, June 7, 2014, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Zimmer passed away earlier this week at the age of 83. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Tampa Bay Rays players wear a Brooklyn Dodgers replica jersey and patch honoring senior baseball advisor Don Zimmer before a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners Saturday, June 7, 2014, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Zimmer passed away earlier this week at the age of 83. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Every time you saw Tony Gwynn or Don Zimmer, they were smiling, laughing or telling a baseball story. Nobody ever had to tell them to get their game faces on. They loved a sport in which a grin was considered an asset. In death, a week apart, the baseball lifers seem paired as joyful, beloved examples of why such men are central to the enduring appeal of a pastime now in its third century.

During Zimmer’s managerial stints, he was always the first one in the clubhouse “to make sure nobody is in my uniform.” He played in the big leagues for years after beanings and cranial surgeries that would have ended the careers of others. He was tough. But everyone also knew that he was soft-hearted underneath, which in his case was about a hundredth of an inch below the surface.

In ’78, when Zimmer’s Red Sox collapsed, Boston pitcher Bill Lee mocked him as “the gerbil” for his chubby cheeks and New England reviled him daily. After losses, his office felt like a postmortem, a real one, because he took every defeat hard and personally. But the next day, at the batting cage, he’d say, “Whadaya need?” to a kid reporter or quietly work the Red Sox clubhouse to energize a slumping team.

No one in baseball studied videotape more exhaustively than Gwynn, who may have started the trend toward film study. The batting cage was his research facility. His career average of .338 is the highest since Ted Williams. He won eight batting titles and five Gold Gloves in right field. He stole 319 bases and threw out runners. But his trademark within the game was his high-pitched giggle. “Here comes Tony,” someone would say because his squeak, and the chuckling of others, announced him.

In some parts of our culture, not just sports, this might constitute a bad office attitude. But in baseball, as long as you’re prepared to do your job, then bear down when it matters and perform it well, nobody cares if you are also a nice guy, a funny guy or, basically, a normal person who wears a size medium ego — or perhaps even a small.

In recent days, the widespread sadness at the deaths of Zimmer, 83, and Gwynn, 54, was for the loss of their personalities, their gentle modesty and their sense of responsibility to act like big leaguers, as well as for their accomplishments. Baseball is slow and open. We get to know people’s expressions, reactions and with Zim and Tony, even their belt size. Because their sport constantly exposes them to view, it also inevitably reveals them. They become people we think we truly know. In the case of Gwynn and Zimmer, we’re right; that’s who they are. So their loss feels intensely present and painful, too.

It’s because of people such as Zimmer and Gwynn, and hundreds of others with similar qualities, though their warmth of spirit may not be writ quite as large, that so many people have spent a lifetime around the game, still love it and don’t grow tired of it or angry at it just because it has all the flaws of other institutions. Baseball doesn’t need to be compared with other sports. There are plenty of good qualities to go around. But side-by-side mug shots of Gwynn and Zimmer show why a ballpark isn’t a bad place to be. If these men are not just welcomed, but celebrated, then how bad can the game’s ecosystem be?

In my experience, baseball is uniquely friendly and funny on a daily basis. I’ve never encountered a workplace like it — and a workplace it is with every player drenched in sweat when he comes off the field an hour before the game to change his uniform in order to play the real game. Whatever happened the day before is banished. And whatever was written or said, whether praise or blame, is swept away for a fresh start. The schedule itself mandates that dispositions be allowed to return to something like their best natural state, so that people can function, not fester.

Gwynn and Zimmer were masters of that daily fresh start. Teams need emotional touch stones, examples of resilience, especially in long difficult seasons. Despite their successes — Gwynn played on two pennant winners and Zimmer had five world championship rings in various capacities — they both spent many years with mediocre or lousy teams. Victory, defeat, they were at ease with both imposters.

When genuinely beloved people die, it’s said that they will always be remembered and never be replaced. The former is true of Gwynn and Zimmer, one a Hall of Famer, the other a journeyman as a player, manager and coach. They were so vividly and satisfyingly individual that they’ll be recalled, and invoked, as examples, for many years. But because they were part of baseball, they will be replaced, as they would want to be, by others with many of their best qualities.

The world can use all the Gwynns and Zimmers it can get. Baseball doesn’t create them, but it husbands and appreciates them. That’s why there are, and will continue to be, many more like them, though never quite the same.

The sound of baseball is Gwynn’s irrepressible laugh, which he sometimes muffled for fear it would seem like he was just having too much fun with a game only an hour away. The look of baseball is Zimmer’s round, mischievous mug with his finger lightly poking a rookie, telling him something firm, correct and supportive, but probably with a punch line that would leave the kid feeling “instructed,” but also intact, still totally big league.