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Catching Up with Baseball Legend Cal Ripken Jr.

Cal RipkenJr. played 21 seasons as shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles. He is a Hall of Famer and an Orioles legend. Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record of consecutive games played, playing in 2,632 straight games. It is one of the greatest records in baseball, and perhaps in all of sports.

Recently, SI Kids spoke with Ripken about his take on how kids and their parents approach playing sports, some of his personal accomplishments throughout his amazing career, and how fans can win a chance to play catch with him.

Tell me about your partnership with Kellogg's. 

I’m teaming up with Kellogg's and Rice Krispies Treats to give two lucky fans the chance to have an All-Star experience with me. I went to 19 All-Star games as a player, and I thought that was the coolest thing. 

I think this is the coolest thing to give two people — kids, adults, anyone — a chance to play catch with me. [You have to be 18 to enter, but parents/guardians can enter for their children.] You go buy Rice Krispies Treats with my picture on it, and there’s a special promo code on there. You go online and put that in, and you might get to come out to Cincinnati and hang with me and play catch.

With so many injuries happening last few years — especially with regard to pitchers, who then undergo Tommy John surgery — what do you recommend for kids to stay healthy and still continue to play baseball? 

That’s a question that lots of people are trying to figure out. I’ve had conversations with a lot of guys who do Tommy John surgery. Dr. James Andrews is looking to try to educate more kids on regular throwing routines, and how much rest you need in between, as well as some exercises you can do. I’m a little concerned. 

Kids are playing baseball year round, so your body doesn’t get a lot of rest. On top of that, they play for multiple teams, so sometimes it’s hard to really gauge how many pitches they’re throwing. It’s really about common sense. I’ve also warned parents that just because Tommy John surgery can fix these problems, doesn't mean that it’s going to work every time. Parents sometimes think they can push their kids a little harder — if something happens I can always get it fixed — and I think that mindset should change. 

What’s your position on kids playing multiple sports? 

I’m a little concerned that kids play baseball year round. I would like to see kids put the baseball glove and bat down for a little while and try another sport. Now, if you’re just crazy about baseball and that’s all you want to do, then I applaud that, but I’m worried when you play any sport year round, there’s a mental burnout and also a physical burnout. 

I think there’s a big value in playing multiple sports. You’re working on your athleticism, but challenging yourself in a different way. I played basketball, so you work on your explosiveness, and moving sideways. I played soccer and I worked on my agility and worked on my balance, because you're moving and trying to kick the ball with each leg. 

When I did specialize in high school, I felt like I benefited from what I had learned. So I would encourage all kids to try other sports. Not only is it good for you mentally, but it also gives you a break from doing the same thing over and over again. 

Do you think kids should focus on playing one position, or should they try many positions?

I think early on it’s healthy to try other positions and be exposed and see what you like. See what you’re good at. I was a pitcher. As a matter of fact, my dad was a catcher, and I wanted to make him proud of me, but I found out I didn’t like it as much — although I did like calling the game. So I’d try other positions, and then you can focus on what position you can work to be the best at. 

Looking at the game today, what is one skill you wish you saw more in players? 

I think all players have different skillsets. Depending on size, speed — each player does different things well. I’m amazed at the skills players have today. I think they are more game-ready, as kids now play in so many games. I’d like to see a little more of the fundamentals and understanding how to react in the heat of the game. I don’t think it’s a skill that’s lacking, but there’s a way to play the game, and I’d like to see more of that.

What could kids hoping to progress in baseball focus on to differentiate themselves?

I don’t think kids should worry about trying to be different. Just be the best player you can be. Some kids might be fast, while some kids are stronger. You should really focus on your strengths and your weaknesses, and the differentiation will happen automatically. Understand how you can make the plays and how you can be consistent and how you can be the best player you can be. 

I say that because I was a big shortstop, and all the other shortstops were smaller. If I kept trying to make plays like other shortstops, I couldn’t execute on those plays. Eventually I ended up differentiating myself by how consistently I could do it and how smooth I could make it look. I would focus totally on what skills and what special talents I had. I wouldn’t worry on how I could be different. I would just try to be excellent. 

Playing with your father and brother, and playing baseball all your life, how important was the support from your mother throughout your career?

I was lucky to have a mom who really knew a lot about baseball. Most people think because of my dad coaching the pros that I knew a lot about baseball, but my mom was also very instrumental in my baseball career. She was a big part for all the kids in my family because she was the one who had the time to do it. My dad worked in the minors then so he wasn’t really available to us. We didn’t have a normal family where my dad would take me to my little league games. My dad saw parts of very few of my games my whole life as an amateur. It was my mom who really put her arm around me. She was there to celebrate my big games and pick me up after my bad games. 

During your amazing streak, did you ever just think to yourself, “I don’t want to play today?” 

I think there’s a lot of times when you get tired. Whether you’re not playing well, or not feeling well, or maybe there’s a tough pitcher on the mound the next day. There’s always a reason you can come up with not to play, but I always wanted to come up with the reasons to play. The way I looked at it, each day was a new challenge, and as a member of a team, you have to try and meet that challenge. My dad used to say, “You can’t play tomorrow’s game until it gets here, so you might as well play the game that’s in front of you.” So yeah, there were times when it was hard, but mentally you had to get over it and focus on the challenge. Once you start convincing yourself that you can do it, you will.

What are you most looking forward to this season in MLB? 

The Nationals are an interesting team — Max Scherzer joined a staff that was already one of the best in baseball. I’m always curious to watch the Orioles. The Angels are interesting team. Kansas City is another team I got caught up in last year. I just like to see everything unfold.

To what extent do you think you’d like to one day work in the front office of a major league team?

I don’t know the answer to that. I think in my mind, when I retired I wanted to have a flexible schedule to be with my kids, who were eight and 12. Now they’re through high school, and my son was drafted by the Nationals, and my daughter lives out in Colorado, and so I’m trying to think on what conditions would I come back. Do I really want to come back? 

There’s been thoughts of being in the decision-making in the front office, but I know what I know most is probably down on the field. So that’s a long way to answer I don’t know, but I do hope to get back in baseball one day. I’m going to have to make a decision pretty soon, you know. I’m getting pretty old.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photos: David Goldman/AP (throwing), Gail Burton/AP (hitting)

cal ripken jr baseball baltimore orioles
cal ripken jr baseball baltimore orioles