Thursday January 20th, 2005

Has anyone ever done more for the game of baseball than Cal Ripken Jr.?

The question struck me recently after I ran into Cal again at the Cal Ripken League World Series at Ripken Stadium in the little slice of baseball heaven he's carved out in Aberdeen, Md. It wasn't hard to find him. He signed hundreds of autographs for free on a daily basis -- I've never seen a star player more accommodating in that way -- and kept such a busy, high profile I half expected to find him dragging the infield between games.

It didn't take long to decide on an answer to my question. No, no one has done more for baseball -- and by that I mean the game, not just the business called Major League Baseball. Indeed, for a guy whose streak of 2,632 consecutive games played is part of American folklore -- not just baseball folklore -- and who was a Hall of Fame ballplayer even without The Streak and who is the closest icon to Joe DiMaggio this generation has, Cal is doing more for baseball now than he did before.

In 1999, officials from Babe Ruth Baseball approached Ripken about joining their youth baseball organization. Ripken, still two years from retirement, liked the idea. The Babe Ruth officials were thrilled to have Ripken lend his name. What they soon discovered was that Ripken never just lends his name. He gets involved. He had his own ideas and plans, and after the Babe Ruth officials recovered from being surprised by his aggressiveness, the organization is better than ever because of his hands-on involvement.

Today the Cal Ripken League serves more than 600,000 kids ages nine through 12 world-wide and is growing every year. If there is one overriding theme to Ripken's input, it is the game is about kids learning and having fun, not adults trying to compensate for their own shortcomings or thinking their little Johnny is the next Ripken.

"I see it a lot even in my own son's league," Ripken said. "It's hard to get people to change, but you try."

For instance, one of Cal's suggestions is that coaches (and parents) save some of their teaching for practice time, rather than constantly correcting players during games. He's always rethinking how the game can better serve kids. For example, he moved the outfield fences back to as far as 240 feet for the Ripken World Series. If you watch the Little League World Series (Little League is a separate, larger entity), the fences are so short that line drives to the wall often result only in singles. Ripken wanted the game to be more like real baseball.

Moreover, Ripken has thought about an elite division of 12-year-olds that would play on a slightly larger field, with 70-foot basepaths and 50 feet between the mound and home plate. In some ways, youth players are like the major leaguers: they're bigger, better trained and have better equipment than generations before them. They make the 60-foot field seem too small.

As the father of two Ripken-playing boys and an active member in my town's Cal Ripken League program, I have a great appreciation for Ripken's earnestness. Indeed, I ventured to Aberdeen because my town, Montgomery, N.J., reached the Ripken World Series. We're not a big program -- the team was culled from a spring league of only seven teams -- but these kids proved they could play with anyone.

Montgomery was two outs away from reaching the U.S. semifinals only to lose a heartbreaker to the eventual U.S. champion, West Raleigh, N.C. (Mexico, the international champion, won the World Series in another thriller Sunday, coming from behind in the last inning to beat West Raleigh, 4-3.)

The Montgomery team played hard and played with class. It was the kind of team, regardless of the outcome of any game, that made the town proud. The kids had a wonderful time. Ripken, for instance, requires that players stay with host families, rather than in hotels with their parents, to enhance the experience. Accommodations ranged from a small home of an elderly couple, to a well-furnished home, to a farm.

The games were held at Ripken Stadium, the sparkling home to the Class A Aberdeen IronBirds, with the playing field retrofitted to accommodate the kids. Next year the World Series will be held next door at Cal Sr.'s Yard, one of four youth fields at the complex. Senior's place will be a mini version of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, with plans for a mini-brick warehouse just beyond the high outfield wall in right field. (It will actually be a hotel.)

There are plans to turn the other three fields into kid-sized versions of Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Memorial Stadium, Cal's first big-league home. Someday there will be dormitories at the complex to accommodate not just the tournament, but the clinics and camps run by Ripken.

Sure, there is a business element to Ripken's venture. He owns the very successful IronBirds as well as Ripken Management and Design, an arm of Ripken Baseball that assists in the planning and construction of baseball facilities of all types. You can buy Ripken's instructional youth baseball book. He has become a brand unto himself, signifying character and commitment. But the genesis of Ripken's involvement is his love of the game and his desire to continue the legacy of his father, one of the great teachers of the game. Cal's charitable venture for children is named after his father, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.

I've never known Cal to do anything halfway. There were times I'd ask him a question, and rather than rattling off some cliche answer off the top of his head, he would ask for time to think about it -- even a full day. After he moved to third base from shortstop, I asked him once about how he knew where to position himself on cutoff throws, and he went on for about 15 minutes in deep explanation. (In fact, one of Ripken's tenets of coaching youth baseball is to explain why, not just to tell.)

Other challenges await him. He's known to be interested in owning a major league team. He nearly came back to the Orioles this season to run their baseball operations, but after a series of private meetings last winter with owner Peter Angelos, in which the two of them discussed possible personnel moves, Ripken decided the fit and the timing were not right. Don't despair, though, because enhancing the youth baseball experience will always be a part of his life, no matter what challenges he takes on next.

After all, his name is on it. He does not take that responsibility lightly. It's hard for me to think, however, that Ripken can find a more important or rewarding role than what he's doing now. He's giving back to the game at its most important level, the kids. I've never known a better ambassador for the game of baseball.

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