Why you should care
Because the sport needs a steady pipeline.
Twenty-one years ago, Cal Ripken Jr. broke the unbreakable: Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games-played streak. In Major League Baseball — a sport that somehow squeezes 162 games into a grueling six-month season — it’s not uncommon for players to sit out 20 games a year. But Ripken managed by 1998 to start in 2,632 consecutive games, blowing past the iconic Yankees slugger by a whopping 502 games. Gehrig’s record went untouched for 56 years; Ripken’s might last forever.
The so-called Iron Man’s unparalleled ability to stay on the field cemented him in baseball lore, but availability was far from Ripken’s only talent. His career achievements are too many to list, but World Series champ, 19-time All-Star and first-ballot Hall of Famer are among them. Since hanging up his cleats, Ripken has become a best-selling author, a minor league baseball team owner, MLB on TBS game analyst and an official ambassador for the game. Yes, “baseball ambassador” is a real position — MLB appointed Cal the special adviser to the commissioner on youth programs and outreach in 2015.
Show kids that there are new opportunities here and give them a chance to discover the game.
Cal Ripken Jr.
OZY met with the Maryland native to discuss new methods for developing youth talent, what it was like being raised in a professional clubhouse and Major League Baseball’s priorities for growth and expansion.
What new regions, in the U.S. and overseas, are becoming baseball hotbeds?
Cal Ripken Jr.: The Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Cuba, as well as Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, are the traditional hotbeds for baseball outside the United States. Australia and Canada have a real passion for the sport too. The kids who are playing are playing more and trying to get the most out of their abilities. There is also a real emphasis on growing the game at the grassroots level and in our inner cities by Commissioner [Rob] Manfred and MLB, which is a great thing for the future of the game.
Which regions are high-priority targets for development?
Ripken: I think the inner cities are vitally important. The real issue here is the need for more fields. The growth of the RBI League [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities; MLB-sponsored youth leagues in inner cities across the country] has been tremendous. Our foundation, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, is building what we call youth development parks to give kids a safe place to play, and the MLB has focused on the construction and refurbishment of fields in its All-Star cities. So an effort is being made.
How do you expand the game in areas where interest may be lacking?
Ripken: You have to be active. Show kids that there are new opportunities here and give them a chance to discover the game. I believe that more than where the focus should be is what the focus should be. We want to continue to demonstrate that the game is fun, and the way it is taught needs to remain fun and fast and continuously evolve.
Are new methods of coaching and training part of the effort to find young talent?
Ripken: Yes, definitely. We’re actually working on measurement systems that are subjective in nature. For years, a ballplayer’s skill was being judged solely by a scout who might make a judgment based on size and quickness, rather than the ability to make the play. It is in the relatively early stages, but we are developing a series of metrics that will measure athletes more fairly and provide them with a score that ultimately can be viewed by college coaches and others to determine someone’s skill set and ability to make a play, rather than just arm strength and speed.
What lessons did you learn from your childhood around professional clubs?
Ripken: I was lucky; I had the encyclopedia of baseball as a father. I hung around the ballpark a lot as a kid, and because Dad was always working I attended tons of clinics with him just so I could spend more time around him. It was a great experience and, I believe, taught me a lot about the game at a very early age.