Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn have each received an overwhelming amount of adulation in the past few months from the fans, the media, rival owners – even opposing teams – and rightly so. Between the two of them, they will comprise one of the most talented and magnanimous Hall of Fame classes when they are inducted five years from now.

Gwynn, with a career .338 batting average, nine batting titles and 3,000-plus hits, is one of the all time great hitters in Major League history, and he racked up five Gold Gloves to boot. Ripken is part of a select group of eight men – Aaron, Ruth, Mays, usial, Yazstremski, Murray, Winfield and Ripken, to post 400 home runs and 3,000 hits, and his 18 consecutive All Star selections are no slouch either. The mere mention of The Streak says all that there is to say about Ripken’s work ethic and commitment to his teammates.

Lots of guys can compile amazing statistics, though. Even Jose Canseco has Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, despite having what may be the only head-related defensive assist of a home run in Major League history. But Ripken and Gwynn were great not only because of what they did, but for who they were.

They are the last of a dying breed – the player who plays his whole career in one city, never gripes about his salary and just goes out and does his best every day. They were students of the game who took their jobs seriously, but never too seriously not to care about the fans. The unadulterated love-fest from fans and foes alike that has followed their retirement is evidence of what a joy it was to watch these men play this game the way it was meant to be played – with class, dignity and skill.

At the same time, however, on the same team as Gwynn, another all-time great is wrapping what will, we all hope, be the last season of his long and eventful career. That man of course, is Rickey Henderson, who has yet to definitively say whether he will attempt to play next year.

And while the baseball world has wrapped its collective arms around Ripken and Gwynn, hoping for one last memory, hardly anyone is sad to say goodbye to Henderson, who might just be the best of the three of them.

I’m glad, too, because he doesn’t deserve anything close to the praises being lauded on Gwynn or Ripken.

On the field, Henderson has to be considered among the absolute all-time greats. He is the undisputed greatest leadoff hitter of all time. Both his single-season and career stolen base records are completely untouchable. He is the all time leader in walks. This week, he tied the all-time runs scored in Major League history. If getting to third base without any help from the rest of your team were a category, you can bet he’d have that one by an unbeatable margin, too.

Off the field, he has to be considered one of the all-time chumps. If Gwynn and Ripken represented the best of what a baseball player could be, Henderson represented the worst. Throughout his entire career, he was a mercenary, a hired gun who hopped from team to team and city to city, intent only on padding his wallet and his statistics. He never bothered to become close to any of his teammates. During the climax of one of the most exciting games in playoff history, while the Mets and Braves were finishing up a 15-inning game, he and fellow-parasite Bobby Bonilla were playing cards in the locker room.

It’s no small wonder he didn’t part ways with any of his teams on good terms.

While Cal and Tony played the game for its own sake and shunned so many of the benefits – fame and glory – that accompanied it, Rickey used the game as a means to feed his own enormous ego and to become a celebrity. They were celebrated precisely because they did not ask to be; he was reviled because he did.

So, Rickey, if you’re wondering why teams aren’t commemorating your magnificent career, maybe it’s because no one wants to remember that you played for them. If you’re wondering why the fans aren’t coming out in droves to catch one last glimpse of your magical stride, maybe it’s because they are treating you the way you treated them throughout your career, with utter disregard.

Enjoy your retirement, Rickey. I know I will.

Tim Sullivan can be reached at sullivanthehoya.com.

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