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Baseball Legend Cal Ripken, Jr. Discusses His YA Book Series

If you’re a baseball fan, you know Cal Ripken, Jr. as one of the greatest to ever play the game. But he’s also an author of a series of young adult books about baseball that deal with issues kids who play sports face every day. The fourth book in the series, Squeeze Play, was released this month, and last week Ripken stopped by Sports Illustrated Kids’ offices to talk about the books.

The series began with Hothead, which focused on a young all-star shortstop who has to learn to deal with his hot temper. Ripken wrote the book with sports columnist Kevin Cowherd. The pair would go on to work on three more books — Super Slugger, about bullying, Wild Pitch, about dealing with pressure, and Squeeze Play — with plans for two more titles in the works. Ripken told SI Kids that the books draw off his experience playing baseball, as well as the issues he sees facing kids today. It’s an area Ripken is expertly qualified to write about: The Hall of Famer works with kids through his Ripken Baseball program to help them appreciate the value of hard work and sportsmanship while having fun playing the game.

Ripken got into that and a whole lot more in our chat. Check it out!

Why did you want to write this series? Where did the idea come from?

I always liked having an influence on kids in the right way, and I always valued the messaging from a book. For some reason, when kids read a book or look at a book, it almost seems like that has more meaning than the verbal word, whether it comes from parents or teachers. If it's in a book, it seems like it's more factual. So I thought this was a great way to reach kids, to really get into a deeper issue, some of their social issues, in a comfortable form where they can examine it and then draw an understanding of how to deal with those situations through the characters in the book. Squeeze Play is all about the pressure that a parent can put on a kid and, really, what resources does he have around him to actually deal with that. So I really enjoyed getting into that, and my hope is that kids will see there's a conclusion to a situation like this and parents who have a chance to read this might realize that their behavior is far worse than they thought it was.

The issues you deal with in the books, how much of that is drawn off of what you see from your work with kids today and how much does that come from what you experienced as a kid?

Well, obviously, the parental issue is... It was a different environment when I played, where parents weren't immersed in the sport. There were some parents that were obnoxious, yelling at the umpires, and kind of creating an embarrassing situation. But for the parental one, I drew a lot from following my son since he was 8 years old, all the way through, he's 20 now, and that whole experience and being in that environment and kind of witnessing behaviors. A little bit from the advice my mom and some of the stories she told about some of the conversations that she had in the stands. But the confidence part or the temper part or even bullying, I drew from a lot of my own experiences going through school and about how bullying might have made you feel and how alone you were feeling in those situations. So it's a combination of drawing from your past experiences and what's happening now.

What's the process like of writing with somebody else?
It's a big leap of faith and trust. I could sit down and write it, but I haven't made a career out of writing. So I respect the ability for a writer to really bring the story to life, to bring the characters to life, and that process. So I knew I needed somebody to help shape that. In the very beginning, it seemed like [co-author Kevin Cowherd and I] were going word to word, back and forth, because I wanted to make sure that my voice, my way of describing baseball, especially, was seen in the book. After you have confidence with Kevin, the second book was more exchanging chapters and making sure you had some control over it. By the third book, there were many chapters at a time that were going. And the fourth book, you kind of go through the concept and you talk about the characters and you kind of go and let him roll with the story then you come back and edit. So I couldn't be happier. Kevin really has captured the style and some of the ways that I think about it.

Were you a writer as a kid?

I always like writing. I mean, I didn't like going through five and six drafts. I didn't see the value of that when I was being taught in school. I totally see the value of that now. Not only is it just rewriting from a perfectionist's standpoint, but it's actually thinking. Because each draft would give you a chance to analyze or think about what's written, and that gives you new ideas and ways to actually shape that for the second draft. So I've come to understand that writing is hard work and I have a great appreciation for it. But now I understand that writing is really an extension of your thinking. It's not just taking a thought and putting it on paper. It actually is part of the analytic process. 

Were you a big reader as a kid?

I read everything I could get my hands on from a baseball standpoint. It was very interest-based. So, I remember any form of literature, a media guide or program or sports magazine, if I got my hands on it I would read it front to back and re-read it again. Some books about baseball. There was one book called Relief Pitcher that was a really interesting book that I held and read through. And I read other big league biographies and those sorts of things.

What do you read now?

I like to read a lot of historical stuff, more non-fiction than fictional stuff. But occasionally I'll roll over to the fiction stuff. I was trying to think what couple books I’ve read here recently... I've been focusing on confidence books lately. It's interesting to me what goes through a kid's mind and what are some of the things that happen. So there have been a couple books on how you develop your confidence, written more with a view towards the kids. It helps you deal with kids a little bit better.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing kids who play baseball, or maybe just sports in general?

How they approach it and how they deal with it. It's easy to say, Go out and have fun. Ideally, you'd like the kids to enjoy the sport and absorb the sport in that environment. But that’s not so easy. It’s creating the environment that it's OK to make a mistake, because everyone is going to make a mistake, and the learning takes place when you make a mistake. So the pressure environment, overall, somehow gets in the way. And I don't know how you return it to a state of pure joy where you don't feel bad when something goes wrong. You want to have success, but kids seem to take things more serious. And you got to have a structure and you've got to learn, but it can't be like a job. In kids athletics now, because people make so much money at the big league level and because it's so important to go to college, it's so important for you to market yourself to the right travel team or make the right high school team, it becomes a serious endeavor as opposed to one that you really enjoy the sport. Because the parents feel that way and the kids also feel that way, as if I've got to do this, I've got to do this, I've got to make this team. And in the end you don't have to do all those things because kids develop at different levels. You just need an opportunity to play and learn and develop and it doesn't have to be all these different environments that you think it does.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photos courtesy Disney-Hyperion

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