We pause from today's regularly scheduled menu of tarnished home run record celebrations, stalled umpire negotiations and Bud Selig travel updates for a "Starting 9" list with a feel-good factor.
During the recent Hall of Fame weekend, a record 75,000 fans showed up to cheer Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn for reasons beyond Gwynn's eight batting titles and Ripken's streak of 2,632 consecutive games played. It was like a journey back in time when Ripken talked about ballplayers as role models, and Gwynn said major leaguers have a responsibility to fans who pay the way.
Neither man is perfect: Gwynn filed for bankruptcy early in his career, and Ripken was as image-conscious as any athlete going. But for a combined 41 seasons in the spotlight, they set a standard for how franchise mainstays should think, act and play the game.
How does an aspiring Ripken-Gwynn clone conduct himself? He runs out each ground ball as though it matters, and spends as much time working on his weaknesses as his strengths. He signs autographs, is courteous with the media and fans, and never utters the words, "The sun was in my eyes.''
He also has an abiding respect for the game's history and traditions. You won't see his police mug shot splashed across the Internet, and if you buy your kid a replica jersey with his name on it, he won't do something embarrassing to make you toss the shirt in the closet.
Finally, he has a connection with fans that transcends statistics. He's a goodwill ambassador both in and out of uniform.
With apologies to Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Russell Martin and other worthy candidates, here's a rundown of players in their 20s who we think best embody the Ripken-Gwynn ideal. They have what it takes to be both respected and loved -- and they all can play a little bit.
Joe Mauer, Twins catcher
For baseball fans old enough to remember the Apollo moon landing, Mauer conjures images of malt shops and lettermen's sweaters. He was a three-sport star in high school, and received a scholarship to Florida State to play quarterback. He was a good student, and helped rescue kittens from trees when he wasn't escorting senior citizens across the street.
As a Twin, Mauer remains a model citizen. He takes more pride in a pitcher's shutout than a four-hit game. He's so sensible and grounded, he gives advice to new teammates who are older than he is. He never makes excuses, and he's humble yet competitive. Like Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and several other Twins players, he's a paragon of community service.
"Joe Mauer is one of those guys who seems too good to be true,'' said Twins general manager Terry Ryan.
Not that Mauer is perfect. At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, he's a little rangy for a catcher. And he did strike out that one time in high school.
The Twins know a good thing when they see it. They've had a Joe Mauer Bat Day, a Joe Mauer Bobblehead Night and a Joe Mauer Sideburn Night, and they recently introduced the Joe Mauer Dugout Doll. Mauer is so popular in the Twin Cities, fans actually keep the stuff rather than flip it on eBay.
Prince Fielder, Brewers first baseman
Fielder grew up around the game and feels at home in a major league clubhouse, but he lacks the sense of entitlement that comes with familiarity. At 23, he seems advanced beyond his years.
Here's a small but telling example: Fielder knows people are going to have an interest in his strained relationship with his father, Cecil. It's a delicate situation, but he routinely answers the questions patiently and honestly, without a hint of resentment or defensiveness.
He's charismatic, too. Three times a year Milwaukee players appear at an event called Autograph Friday. During the last session, fans rushed to Fielder's table until the line stretched to the door. With time at a premium, some finally decided to give up and seek autographs from other Brewers.
Fielder resonates with fans because he plays the game with the exuberance of a chubby Little Leaguer. Just check out the picture of him with the Milwaukee racing sausages in the latest ESPN The Magazine.
"Prince has tremendous talent and strength, and he can hit a baseball a mile,'' said Brewers manager Ned Yost. "But that's not good enough for him. He wants to be a complete hitter, a baserunner and an above-average defensive first baseman. A lot of people are satisfied with doing one or two things really well. Prince wants to do everything well.''
Here's one caveat to Brewers fans: Fielder is a Scott Boras client, so don't expect him to be all warm and fuzzy and take that hometown discount to stay in Milwaukee when he's eligible for free agency in 2011. Boras gets great deals, but he's not so good for the lovability factor.
Chase Utley, Phillies second baseman
Looking for the signature Chase Utley moment? It came on Aug. 9, 2006, when he motored home from second base to score on a routine ground ball in a 9-3 victory over Atlanta.
"Chase Utley, you are the man!'' Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas gushed from the booth.
Utley, along with Aaron Rowand, sets the tone in the Phillies' clubhouse. He's the guy who tells teammates to quit griping and remove their batting practice pullovers so they look professional on photo day, and he signs autographs to ease the congestion when it's getting a little crowded around the dugout before the game.
He even sets an example when he's on the disabled list. How many infielders take ground balls with their wrist in a cast, as Utley did during the Phillies' last road trip?
Utley's career .895 OPS is a testament to his offensive ability. But it's just as easy to be wowed by his baserunning or the way he's transformed himself from a defensive liability into one of the game's better second basemen. Utley complements his natural ability with an obsessive work ethic, and he's willed himself to become a great all-around player.
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies shortstop
Any list of talented young shortstops begins with Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez. But Reyes sacrificed his spot on our All-Ripken-Gwynn clone team when Mets manager Willie Randolph benched him last month for failing to run out two grounders in four games. And Ramirez, while a terrific player, still lacks that seasoned veteran demeanor.
Tulowitzki, just a rookie, gives the low-key Rockies a feistiness they'd lacked in recent years. He won't tolerate fundamental lapses, and he was self-assured enough to call out Toronto's Jason Phillips for diving at his knees on a play at the plate in June. What Tulowitzki lacks in experience, he makes up for in chutzpah.
He also has a flair for the dramatic: During a road trip in June, Tulowitzki hit three potential game-winning homers late, but the Colorado bullpen botched all three games.
Tulowitzki is a connoisseur of great shortstop play. He used to carry baseball cards of Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter in his uniform pocket in tribute, and he wears No. 2 in honor of Jeter. Tulowitzki has such a man-crush on Jeter, the Rockies jokingly purchased bottles of "Driven'' cologne and dabbed it on before a series against the Yankees in June.
David Wright, Mets third baseman
It's tough being a young, good-looking center of attention in a market like New York -- fighting through slumps while fending off marriage proposals. But Wright does it with aplomb.
When you have your own charitable foundation, your name adorns a Delta Airlines jet and your teammates still aren't resentful, that says something. In a New York Times profile last spring, Mets closer Billy Wagner described Wright as "well-mannered, well liked, well disciplined and well rounded.''
That's a tribute to Wright's upbringing. His father, Rhon, was a police officer in Virginia, and Wright learned a sense of responsibility as the oldest of four brothers.
Accountability is part of the equation. Earlier this season, when his mysterious lack of power became a big issue, Wright kept plugging away. Three months later, he has 19 homers and ranks fifth among big league third basemen with an .897 OPS. Sometimes leadership is just another word for perseverance.
Grady Sizemore, Indians outfielder
Sizemore makes the veteran scouts misty with his old-school approach, and his numbers are so overwhelming, the SABR guys can appreciate him, too. When Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro is asked which young players embody the Ripken-Gwynn ideal, he immediately cites Sizemore and Joe Mauer.
"The only thing that matches Grady's passion and energy level is his athleticism and raw ability,'' Shapiro said. "He's not consumed by anything other than winning, being a good teammate and playing the game the right way.''
Last September, with Cleveland going nowhere, Sizemore dived headfirst on a gravel warning track to make a catch on Chicago's Brian Anderson in a game the Indians trailed 7-1. When staff members told him he might want to exercise more caution, Sizemore looked at them as if they were space aliens. He only knows one way to play.
Curtis Granderson, Tigers outfielder
Granderson, our ESPN.com blogging buddy, has a business management degree from the University of Illinois-Chicago, and he's the Tigers' assistant player representative. No wonder he was such a media go-to guy during Detroit's 2006 postseason run. Sean Casey is known as "The Mayor,'' but Granderson is so adept at working the room, he might want to run for governor one day.
Granderson plays the game with zeal. He has 63 extra-base hits this season -- one more than Alex Rodriguez -- and you can see the fire in his eyes when he's churning for another triple. "That kid really wants to be great,'' said former teammate Dmitri Young, now a Washington National.
It said a lot about Granderson's team-oriented mind-set last spring when he reached out and befriended Cameron Maybin, the Tigers prospect who's on track to take his center-field job and force him to move to left.
If Major League Baseball is going to succeed in reaching out to young African-American athletes, Granderson should play a role. Last year he traveled to Europe on behalf of MLB, holding clinics and spreading the gospel of baseball.
Jeff Francoeur, Braves outfielder
Francoeur made an impression with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic when he confronted Alex Rodriguez after A-Rod berated a clubhouse kid for bringing him the wrong sandwich. That's one way to earn points with your peers.
Francoeur has started 277 consecutive games, and he plays with an aggressiveness befitting a former football star. He leads the major leagues with 41 outfield assists since his Braves debut in July 2005.
While Francoeur is routinely disparaged for a lack of plate discipline, he's determined to be more selective this season. He's improved his on-base percentage from .293 to .354, and he's already surpassed his walk total for 2006. At age 23, he targeted his major weakness and quickly addressed it.
In the clubhouse, Francoeur is popular with teammates and rarely has a down day. "He's everything he appears to be,'' said Frank Wren, Atlanta's assistant general manager.
Johan Santana, Twins starting pitcher
Santana created a stir at the nonwaiver deadline when he took some shots at the Twins' front office for trading Luis Castillo to the Mets.
The person least offended by Santana's comments? Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan.
"It's not exactly my desire to have that be public,'' Ryan said. "But I'm up here [in my office] and the players are down there busting their butts, and they didn't see me do a thing. What do you expect them to say? He was trying to be a leader. I had no problem with what he said, because he was standing up for the clubhouse.''
As if Santana's 89-40 career record and two Cy Young Awards aren't enough, the Twins say he's the same person he was as a rookie learning on the job in the bullpen. Santana is bilingual, an icon in his native Venezuela, and he never misses a start.
That's why it must gall Twins fans to hear Yankees and Red Sox backers speculate on their teams signing Santana as a free agent in late 2008. Will Santana spend his entire major league career in one town, like Ripken and Gwynn, or follow the money trail elsewhere? That's a question for another day.