Long before he was Major League Baseball’s “Iron Man,” Cal Ripken Jr. was a kid competing in youth tournaments. Playing on fields with fences was the exception, not the rule. Fifteen years removed from his Hall of Fame career, Ripken is now the driving force behind a series of facilities that any youth would dream to play at.
The Ripken Experience in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
, which opened in March in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, is the newest and perhaps greatest venue developed by the Baltimore Orioles legend and his younger brother, Bill, also a former pro baseball player. The original facilities in his hometown of Aberdeen, Maryland
, and in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
, have already had major economic benefits
on their respective cities and helped promote playing baseball “The Ripken Way.”
That is only one reason Ripken, a 19-time All-Star and two-time American League most valuable player, is one of the sport’s MVPs when it comes to inspiring youth. He started Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation
(named after his late father, a former minor league and big league coach in the Orioles organization), which is dedicated to redeveloping fields in underserved neighborhoods as a way to reach at-risk children. And in December 2015, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred named Ripken a special adviser on youth programs and outreach, giving the legend further influence in a field he is passionate about.
Connect Sports talked to Ripken about the business of building baseball complexes, how he hopes to promote the sport and what lessons kids can learn from his record for most consecutive games played.
What did you think of the Pigeon Forge facility when you were there on opening day?
I knew the complex was going to be good, but I didn’t know it was going to be that good. The building on the top—that’s your first impression—is like a ski lodge. It gets you excited, and then when you come out the back and see the whole complex, it will blow you away. It might be the best kids’ complex I’ve ever seen.
Were there any surprises?
When sitting in our design meetings, I couldn’t fully fathom the changes in elevation—there is symbolism in going up from the low minor leagues to the big leagues. I kept thinking: This is going to be steep. But as is turned out, the 50-ft. drop from the top didn’t feel like 50 feet at all. It was gradual and it allowed us to create unique sections for the fields.
What led to your original idea to create the complexes?
Aberdeen was a natural. The whole idea was to have a teaching complex [where my dad lived] so he could [have an] impact on kids and they could enjoy tournament baseball.
How did that lead to Myrtle Beach?
We were trying to get USA Baseball
to consider Aberdeen for its headquarters when they ended up moving to Cary, North Carolina. Through the process, we met a lot of interesting people, and our ideas resonated with them. Myrtle Beach
then came to us.
How did you settle on Pigeon Forge?
They called us. It was clear they understood tourism—look at their success with Dollywood
—and bringing kids into the municipality, and they valued the brand. We had already developed two models in Aberdeen and Myrtle Beach, where one’s a weekend and one’s a weeklong destination. Pigeon Forge is sort of hybrid.
Would it be fair to say you’ve been conservative in your expansion plans?
Maybe this comes from my dad, but we wanted to prove the model and feel good about it before trying to expand. We learned from that model. Myrtle Beach is fantastic, but you have to find places that are vacation destinations to [replicate] that. It can’t be done everywhere.
Can you elaborate?
When we get people to fill out surveys in Myrtle Beach and ask them what the best part of their experience was, part of me wants them to identify baseball moments, but they rarely do. They say the beach was fantastic and the go-karts were great. They are there for the baseball, but they are remembering the other things. You can’t lose sight of that.
Will there be more Ripken Experience facilities?
I equate it to our foundation. We just cut the ribbon on our 56th and 57th fields, and by next year we’ll be close to 100. It didn’t happen because we had a gigantic strategy to hit all these markets. It started with what made sense for us, and other people saw that success and started coming to us. As we go forward, I think we’re going to have opportunities to target places that make sense.
What would your dad make of all this?
He would be more detail-orientated than we are now, and running the nuts and bolts of Aberdeen, that’s for sure. He would be building things, moving things and improving things on a daily basis, and proud of the way we’ve gone about making sure the kids’ experience is special and makes them feel like big leaguers.
People in baseball often talk about “The Ripken Way.” What does that mean to you?
The Ripken Way evolved from what was called the Oriole Way, when my dad was part of an organization thought to be the best at evaluating and developing talent. He was part of the development. When the Oriole Way started to dissipate, some of the players started talking about the Ripken Way and how it had influenced them.
How has that affected your work with youth baseball?
We looked at some of the philosophies that Dad invoked and organized our teaching around that. [One of those was] being able to explain the why—if Dad was going to ask you to do something, then you knew why he was asking. Celebrating the individual was another. You can’t teach everyone the same way. Baseball can be monotonous as all get-out, so you want to make it fun so the kids get something out of it.
The other one is keep it simple—but keeping it simple is complicated when you think about it. The skills in baseball are complex. You can focus on all sorts of things, but you have to take your overall knowledge of hitting and bring it down to a process where you can start to bring the kid along, focus on the right things and communicate it in a way that he gets it.
How are you going about winning over kids with shorter attention spans?
We created a game and tested it out at Pigeon Forge. It’s a faster version of baseball. You take some things, like does the inning have to be three outs? Or, do we have to start with nobody on base? We said no. We had situations that created action. I think we played a game in an hour and 10 minutes, and the kids responded to that.
How can youth tournaments be improved?
One is umpires. We’re in a day and age where you see big leaguers arguing with umpires, and that’s teaching kids how the game is played. With instant replay, there is less of that, and that’s a good thing. I don’t want any of it. If someone is hooting from the stands or the dugout, I don’t want the umpire to go handle that. At our complexes, we’re telling the umpires to call a time out and tell us. We have people called Orange Shirts, and it’s their responsibility to deal with [issues]. The umpire’s job is to police the game, not the fans. We have made good strides with that, and it makes the experience of playing so much better.
Do you have any advice for parents reacting to their kids’ games?
There’s much more pressure now with travel teams. Parents immerse themselves in the kids’ sports and consequently put more pressure on the kids. I have always said parents need to figure out how to remove the pressure so they can learn and play, and have the freedom to want to play. Everybody wants to talk about the game after something bad happens, but that’s the worst time to talk. Let it sink in. Give some time for everyone to calm down.
What do you see as some of the other positives and negatives of travel sports?
The experiences of kids [today] are out of this world. I would have loved the chance to play in some of the ballparks we’ve developed. For a long time when I was playing recreation ball we didn’t have any fences. I think kids in general deal with the pressure of the bases loaded a lot better than we did because they are getting it a lot. There are more kids swinging the bat and there is more information about strength [training], and those are positive things, but one of the negatives is there’s not enough practice.
How would you feel if, in 15 years, young players know you more for your outreach efforts than your time as a professional player?
When someone asks how I would like to be remembered as a baseball player, I always say to be remembered at all is pretty good. The foundation’s success has been wonderful. We’ve been able to help a lot of kids. I’d love for that to be so wildly successful that I’m remembered that way, and we use Dad’s name on that because his legacy was using baseball to reach kids. And with youth baseball, I like the fact that I was a kid who had dreams and looked up to big leaguers, and now I have the influence to help promote the game and get more kids playing.
Do kids tell you they are going to break your streak?
All the time. My answer is, “I hope you do. It’s going to take 17 years without missing a game, so you might as well start by not missing a game or practice by not missing a day at school.” I didn’t have perfect attendance in school. In the minor leagues, I had injuries that caused me to miss some time. Then in my double-A year, I pushed myself to play all 144 games, and in my Rochester year, I played all the games just to prove I could. I think it’s a good goal to have [to not miss a game], but not to break my record for individual glory. It’s a principle that you are there for your team every day.
Related Post: The Ripken Experience Drives Business to Cities
Photo Credit: Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism