Cal Ripken, Jr. played 20 seasons in the majors — all for the Baltimore Orioles. He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1982, a World Series champion in 1983, a 19-time All-Star, and a two-time American League. He won two Gold Gloves and eight Silver Slugger awards. He's baseball's Iron Man, playing in 2,632 straight games. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 and named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
In other words, Ripken is one of the all-time great baseball players.
Since retiring in 2001, he has remained involved in the game, most notably through Ripken Baseball. The program aims to instill in kids and young ballplayers the right skills and attitude to be successful on and off the field.
Last week, Ripken stopped by Sports Illustrated to talk with SI Now about the MLB All-Star Game and his work with Transitions lenses. He also spoke to SI Kids about Ripken Baseball and why it's important for kids to get a lot of different kinds of experiences before committing to any one sport.
The most common question we get from kids, kids want to know if you want to be a serious baseball player when you reach that junior high or high school age, baseball is so reliant on skills as basketball and football are reliant on athleticism, kids want to know is it different for baseball? Would you ever recommend to someone – maybe you want to focus on this year round?
I’m not a proponent, at the younger ages, of specializing too soon. I value the things you get when you play other sports. You’re developing your athleticism in different ways as you play other sports. I think soccer was a huge value to me because the agility standpoint, movement – being in shape – we had a coach that made us run up the hills. Your doing a lot of things with your feet, so your balance and agility are affected through the course of that game. Basketball – your quick twitch muscles, your moving much quicker, and your moving, your explosiveness jumping up rebounding that sort of thing, I think that helps build your athleticism, and then you can relate all of those skills back to the sport you’re most interested in at some point. So in an ideal setting, I wouldn’t specialize early. I’d play all the sports I can, and then when I looked at which one I liked the best or which one I thought I was the best in and then I’d start to put a little more energy. And I think that happens naturally. Parents get a little worried that Joey’s not going to make the travel team unless he plays fall ball and spring ball, and they worry that now his development is going to be forwarded, but I’m not a proponent of that.
You have one of the legendary relationships with your father being on the field. What was it like growing up with him as a pro manager?
When you grow up in a baseball family, and dad was in the minor leagues the first 14 years of my life, that’s your norm. You're not comparing it to other people necessarily. Going to the ballpark was just part of the norm. And I didn’t spend one-on-one time with my dad, but I spent time with my dad as he spent one on one time with shortstops, second basemen, the outfielder, the hitter, and he caught in the bullpen – he threw batting practice – so I was absorbing all the stuff, all the instruction that he was giving to other people. So it gave me a nice, round understanding of the game. Dad was the encyclopedia of baseball. How many kids grow up with the encyclopedia of baseball?
How did that impact your development as a baseball player?
I think I took that for granted in the beginning, because it was my norm. And then I longed for him to be at my games when I was a kid because he wasn’t. Because when you have a job in baseball, you’re away, and your mom goes to all of your games, and maybe dad saw parts of one or two games my whole time between 18, before I went away to play pro ball. And then once I started playing pro ball, we were reunited, and really got to know each other as adults in some ways. So we shared our baseball love, and my skill took me to the point where we were on the same team, and then we were able to interact in ways that dads and sons don’t get a chance to at that age. So it was really cool. It was amazing to me, dad would ask me how did you learn how to do that? And I would say, “Well, from you.” And he’d say, “I don’t remember teaching you that.” I said, “You didn’t, you were teaching somebody else that. I heard you tell so and so that.” So that was cool.
How did the relationship you had with your father influence your relationship with your kids?
When I retired, my son was 8 and my daughter was 12, so it was important that I choose something in my next phase of my life where I would have more flexibility to be there. My son [Ryan is] a pretty accomplished baseball player and I think he’ll have a chance to play pro ball. No one knows how far he’ll go, it depends upon how he meets the challenges, the harder challenges to come. But I’ve been there more, I’ve seen most all of his games. I’ve been through those reps. And maybe he becomes a little dependent on me. I’m fixing him and helping him all the time, way more than a one-on-one sense, but it’s still all those values that Dad used to give to teaching the lessons of when to give it, when not to give it. When are your emotions high, when should you wait. All of those things I use, I use my dad’s experience to help teach and help bring along Ryan. But I’ve really enjoyed seeing him develop and seeing when he does something on the baseball field that’s good – if he hits a home run or drives a run off a tough pitcher, or they couldn’t hit him, or he drives in a big run and they win the ball game. It’s a hundred times better than when I did it. It’s just what a dad feels with their child. So I’m enjoying this phase of my life.
Did your experience working with your kids impact the development of the Ripken Way and Ripken Baseball?
That’s been a normal evolution, and trying to explain and define what the Ripken way is, if you look at context, Dad was part of an excellent organization of baseball, one of the greatest organizations, and they figured out a way of teaching or a way of playing the game, through trial and error. They kept what worked and they discarded what didn’t. Pretty simple. That became known as the Oriole Way. When that started to break up, Dad was one of the remaining few people from that and so he started calling it the Ripken Way. And so when we started teaching, we were taking some of the methods Dad had learned all those years – some of the methods I just described to you, and we started to put that under what the Ripken Way umbrella would be.
We found that little things, like keep it simple, isn’t as simple as it sounds. You have to take a wealth of knowledge and something that’s meaningful, and you have to put it in a position where I can give it to you, and then you can understand it. So simple message, your vocabulary, your wording is critical in order to pass something I know along to you to help you become a better player. Celebrate the individual – we all are different. We all hit different, we all play different, we have all hand eye coordinations – you have to keep that in mind when you’re teaching. I can’t teach you the same way I’m going to teach someone else. Could be similar, but you have to keep that in mind, that we all bring different talents. Explain the why. Because when your teaching, your bringing them along and your explaining the why so they buy into it and they become their own coach after time. Your credibility goes way up if you can explain why. Dad was always really great in that. And then the other part about that is you have to remember it’s a game and you keep it fun and you immerse fun in it. You try to take away the monotony of the repetition process, and you try to remember that you were a kid too, and you try to put it into a situation where they can have fun and they’re going to want to do it more often.
So that’s the basis of how we define the Ripken Way, but it’s always evolving. And maybe that’s part of it, you have to keep an open mind and you learn something new everyday that you can apply, and you want to keep the things that work and push the things out that don’t work.
Interview by Dante A. Ciampaglia and Gary Gramling
Ripken also talked about his consecutive games streak. Check out that part of the interview here.
Photos: Ripken coaching kids courtesy Transitions Lenses