As his big-league playing days wind down, baseball icon Cal Ripken is revving up his next career: youth baseball impresario. Ripken, who is retiring from the Baltimore Orioles at the end of the season, plans to take a major role in directing the company he hopes will become the cleanup hitter of youth ballplaying: "Ripken Baseball."
Already, Ripken Baseball offers baseball instructional summer camps for kids. And two years ago, Babe Ruth League Baseball renamed its leagues for 5- to 12-year-olds the "Cal Ripken Division" in honor of the future Hall of Famer. This week, the top teams in the Ripken Division are gathered for the Ripken World Series in Vincennes, Ind. Next year, the kiddie World Series moves to a $35 million youth-baseball Disneyland that Ripken is building in his hometown of Aberdeen, Md.
On the eve of the Ripken World Series, Ripken spoke with BusinessWeek contributing editor Mark Hyman about his plans for spreading the gospel of baseball. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: What's it like having a kids league named for you?
A: At first, it blows you away. You feel an eerie sense of pressure. To my way of thinking, an honor of that kind belongs to someone from the past. It was almost ghost-like. Then I started thinking about it from a different angle: as an opportunity, instead of just an honor. It's a way to use [the] fame that baseball has provided to have an influence on a lot of kids.
Q: You've said you don't see your league competing with Little League Baseball. Why not?
A: We're all interested in growing the game of baseball. And the [Ripken Division] is our vehicle to help grow the game. If we do good things along the way -- and we expect to do a lot of great things -- it may have an impact on Little League and help them do great things. Then, all youth baseball benefits. As I said, I don't see it as a competition. I see it as an opportunity to put our philosophies to the test.
Q: You're exploring changes in the field dimensions used by the Ripken Division -- and set many years ago by Little League. What changes?
A: I think 12-year-olds are ready for a bigger diamond. For years, I've been watching the Little League World Series on ABC, and now ESPN. You see popups that end up as home runs. You see line drives into the gaps that turn out to be singles. Outfielders are playing with their backs [against] the outfield walls. Kids are bigger and faster today. If you add up all that, it makes sense to consider [stretching the diamond from 60 feet to] 70 feet.
Q: You've said that some misguided adults are taking some of the fun out of youth baseball. How?
A: I have some strong thoughts about the environment in which baseball is being taught. It seems like the professional game, the seriousness of it, has trickled all the way down.... The mentality is to make big-league ballplayers out of 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds. Coaches create an extremely serious environment that is not healthy. It becomes a negative when coaches and parents make it their whole lives, when they make [young players] practice three or four hours a day and yell negative things. That only creates a tense atmosphere. If the parents involved realize that the competition is for the kids, the experience becomes positive.
Q: What can you do to change that?
A: It can't happen overnight. But I plan on using my platform as a spokesman for baseball to bring attention to the issue. I may publish a book.
Q: If your aim is to bring back the fun for kids of all abilities, why put so much emphasis on a highly competitive event like the Ripken World Series?
A: It is kind of a contradiction. The perception might be that we're [creating an event] that will be so important for coaches and kids that they will want to get there at all cost. That's not the idea. We want to turn the event into a life experience, as opposed to winning and losing, living or dying. Compete fairly and honestly and enjoy yourself.
Q: You made a speech to players at the first Ripken World Series last year. What did you tell them?
A: I said, "There only will be one winner here. But that doesn't mean the rest of you lose. Take this experience and apply it to everything you do in your life. Take it all in. You'll be better off for having been here."
Q: To the average kid ballplayer, do you think it means much to be a player in a league named for you?
A: In some ways. They all understand that they have a [Ripken Baseball] patch on their arm -- there's a certain pride in that. As time goes on, it will come to mean more. Once we move into the mini Camden Yards and Fox puts [the Ripken World Series] on their [broadcast] network, it will mean a lot more. If I'm a kid sitting anywhere and I see that, I'll say, "I want a chance to go there."