Right elbow up and back, bat cocked high above his shoulders, Cal Ripken Jr. leans into a pitch and rips another home run for charity at Cal Sr.’s Yard—a youth baseball park designed by his company and named after his father—in his hometown of Aberdeen, Md. (pop. 14,099).
Though he retired from major league baseball 10 years ago, Ripken, 50, has no problem hitting balls 215 feet in the miniature replica of nearby Camden Yards, where he played for much of his 21-year career with the Baltimore Orioles. The on-field fundraiser for the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which sponsors baseball-themed programs for disadvantaged youth, kicks off the Cal Ripken World Series, which Ripken hosts each August.
Since retirement, the 2007 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, best known for playing a record 2,632 consecutive major league games, has been on a mission to “grow the game of baseball” by introducing a new generation of players to the all-American pastime.
“We want to help influence kids in a way that we feel brings tribute to the game, and honor and integrity to the teaching practices,” says Ripken, the author of five books, including Play Baseball the Ripken Way.
Growing the game
The Ripkens’ stewardship of the game commenced in the mid-1990s when Cal Sr. and his sons, Cal Jr. and Bill, began offering instructional camps for youngsters at baseball parks around the nation.
Their efforts to grow the game got an unexpected boost on the night of Sept. 6, 1995, following Cal Jr.’s celebratory lap around Camden Yards after he surpassed Lou Gehrig’s venerable record of 2,130 consecutive games played. That’s when the Major League Baseball Players Association handed him a $75,000 check to help launch what today is Ripken Baseball, a for-profit conglomerate that instructs coaches and players, designs and builds ballparks, and owns minor league teams.
Last year, for example, 43,000 young players and coaches participated in Ripken Baseball camps, clinics and tournaments, mostly conducted at Ripken-owned facilities in Aberdeen and Myrtle Beach, S.C. The Aberdeen complex features seven youth-size ballparks whose designs pay tribute to classic major league diamonds, including Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago.
“They’re customized for younger kids,” Ripken says, “so they can experience the thrill of hitting the ball over the fence.”
In 1999, Babe Ruth League Inc., due in large part to Cal Sr.’s longstanding relationship with the organization, renamed its largest division—for youngsters ages 5 through 12—Cal Ripken Baseball, which today numbers more than 700,000 players worldwide. Each summer, 16 of the best Babe Ruth League teams in the world compete in the Cal Ripken World Series in Aberdeen.
“We wanted to be in a position to say, ‘Whatever good things we can do, we want to encourage more kids to play the game and more kids to play the game longer,’” says Ripken, known as baseball’s Iron Man for consistently showing up for games and remaining in the lineup despite minor injuries.
In 2002, Ripken Baseball designed and built Ripken Stadium adjacent to the youth complex. The ballpark is home to the Ripken Baseball-owned Aberdeen IronBirds, a minor league team that has produced one of sports’ most incredible stories of fan loyalty. Since the Ironbirds franchise started a decade ago, the team has sold out every home game without benefit of a single winning season.
“It’s something we still marvel at,” says Jeff Eiseman, 40, Ripken Baseball’s executive vice president of sales and marketing. “We’re creating a little Wrigleyville kind of excitement.”
Ripken Baseball since has purchased two other minor league clubs—the Augusta (Ga.) GreenJackets, in 2005, and the Charlotte Stone Crabs of Port Charlotte, Fla., in 2009.
Yet another arm of the company, Ripken Management & Design, established in 2003, designs and builds sports complexes, like the one in Aberdeen, in cities across the nation.
Ripken Baseball also has gone global with its mission and message. In 2007, Ripken was named a special public diplomacy envoy to the U.S. State Department, and in the last four years he has traveled to China and Nicaragua to promote the game.
A father’s influence
Young Cal grew up immersed in the game of baseball, traveling from town to town with his parents, Vi and the late Cal Ripken Sr., a onetime Baltimore Orioles manager who for years shuffled his family around the country as a minor league manager in the Orioles organization.
“We looked at it as normal,” recalls Ripken, who spent 14 summers with three siblings in Elmira, N.Y., Asheville, N.C., Rochester, N.Y., Tri-Cities, Wash., and Aberdeen, S.D., among other towns where his father was employed.
His sister, Elly, and two brothers, Fred and Bill, a former major league second baseman and now a co-partner of Ripken Baseball, looked to each other for friendship and entertainment.
“We became a closer-knit family because we were relying on each other all the time. We didn’t know any other lifestyle,” Ripken says. But there was only one place they all called home. “Mom used to say, ‘Home is where the family is.’ So you could make home anywhere.”
Cal concedes he’s like his dad in many respects: “He was a doer, a worker,” says Ripken about the man who became the first and only manager in major league history to start two sons in the same game, when Cal and Bill played the infield for the Orioles in 1987. “Dad was open-minded about everything. He was really inquisitive; he was analytical and considered all things.”
Those same traits are evident today in Cal Ripken Jr., the legendary ballplayer turned entrepreneur and guardian of the game; a man whose vision and sense of fair play register with the 100 people who work for him full time.
“He’s truly an optimist,” Eiseman says of his boss. “He sees the world as anything is possible. And because of that, I think it allows us all to dream a little bit. And we can make those dreams realities.”
For Cal Jr., aspirations must be grounded in integrity and sportsmanship. When he was a teenager, two Baltimore-area youth baseball coaches recognized his potential. He agreed to play for both teams, but favored one because it attracted more big-league scouts. Asked by his dad which team he had agreed to play for first, young Cal replied that the team he least wanted to play for was the one he’d initially said yes to. Cal Sr. looked his son in the eyes, saying simply, “Then you will.”
“It was about your word,” says Ripken, citing the lesson he learned from his father many years ago, “so you lived to your word.”
That’s the Ripken way.