For those of us of a certain age (that is to say, old), it’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Cal Ripken Jr. last laced up his cleats, grabbed his glove, and trotted onto the field at Camden Yards. Yet, two decades after his storied playing career ended, he remains an athletic icon in his hometown. But even the Iron Man isn’t immune to the changes life inflicts on us all. Ripken’s not one to publicly pontificate about his private life, but since retiring, he’s been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, gotten divorced, moved from Reisterstown to Annapolis (a town he says has a “vacation” kind of feel), gotten remarried, lost his mother, Vi, been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and subsequently been given a clean bill of health.
There has been one constant in his life over the past 20 years: his work with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which he and his brother, former Oriole Bill Ripken, started in 2001 to honor their late father, the longtime Orioles coach and manager. On Nov. 10, Ripken and what seemed like enough business leaders and politicians to fill out a full baseball roster, gathered at Reedbird Park in South Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood to dedicate the 100th youth development park built by the foundation and its partners. It was a gorgeous sunny fall day, and Ripken, looking a little rounder and a lot balder than he did at shortstop, seemed to be humbled by the milestone.
“Dad’s legacy really was in helping kids,” he said. “We simply started a foundation in his name to help kids through sports. It’s not rocket science by any means…We want to partner with everyone who wants to help kids.”
The numbers the foundation has racked up since its founding are as impressive as the two MVPs, 19 All-Star Game appearances, 431 home runs, 3,184 hits, and 2,632 consecutive games played that Cal amassed during his 20 seasons with the Orioles. Over the course of its two decades, the foundation has affected more than 10 million children in all 50 states through its programs, constructed 137 STEM centers in elementary and middle schools nationwide, and spent $113 million to build the youth development parks, most of which can be used for baseball plus other sports.
Three weeks after dedicating No. 100 (the 16th field the foundation has built in Maryland), Ripken joined us via Zoom from his home in Anne Arundel County to discuss the foundation’s beginnings, its evolution, and its mission.
Your career is so associated with numbers. What does it mean to you to have just dedicated your 100th field?
It’s hard to believe in many ways. You start out to do some good work. Your mindset is more on the day-to-day and smaller goals. I remember when we got into the field construction because we realized that we needed safe places for our programs. Our former chair said we’ll build 50 fields in five years. It was one of the most ridiculous notions, and I thought it was unachievable, actually. I said, “Let’s just be sure we get it right and do each one the best we can, let’s start to build a little momentum,” and that momentum happened very quickly.
I guess maybe it’s my baseball training, too—you don’t look ahead. As Dad used to say, “You can’t replay yesterday’s game, you can’t play tomorrow’s game, so you might as well focus on this one.” When you do sit back and look at it, 100 fields is a heck of an accomplishment. At over $1 million a field, it means we’ve raised over $100 million in this effort, and we’ve provided all these places that the community deems as a safe place for their kids. That makes you especially proud.
Dad would always like to have his hands on everything and be right in the middle of it. He would always warn us, “Don’t get too big for your britches.” I wonder whether he would think we’re too big for our britches right now or we did it the right way. But it happened fast.
Other than being No. 100, does anything set Cherry Hill apart for you?
The meaning of having it in Baltimore. I remember when [philanthropist] Doris Buffett said, “I’ll give you $1 million if you raise $1 million. But I want to build fields.” Our first one was the site of Memorial Stadium, and that was especially meaningful to Billy and myself because we stood right at home plate looking out at that white house. When Memorial Stadium got knocked down, we could still visualize that by standing at home plate, because we put home plate at exactly the same place.
The spirit of these fields are not just to try to find baseball players. It’s to try to have a safe place for the kids to play no matter what they play. We themed many of them after baseball fields because that’s who we are, but we [couldn’t] care less whether they play baseball on it or soccer or any other sport. We want to teach them values, the magic of sports, and give them an ultimate direction to go.
Where did the idea for the foundation originate, and how has it evolved over the years?
When dad died, he was 63 years old, and it’s alarming to say 63 because I’m 61 right now. It was lung cancer. He was a big smoker. So Billy and I sat down because I guess we had a need to capture the legacy of dad’s life. Our perspective was that he cared about kids. The first 14 years of my life, he acted as a father figure for many new guys getting drafted into the Orioles system from all different backgrounds from across the country and in some cases across the world. He helped them fulfill their dreams.
But baseball took him away from me as a kid. I could never figure out, if you have a [free] Saturday morning you could choose to spend time with your kids, but he would go out there and conduct a free clinic, and I was trying to figure out why he would do that. He had this sort of fatherly, paternal feeling, maybe because he lost his dad when he was only 10 years old. He matched kids with caring adults as mentors. We thought that was his true legacy, so we started a foundation to do exactly what he did without much fanfare so that we could legitimately help kids.
How do you use baseball and other sports as a vehicle to help kids?
When I go to the Hall of Fame now to support the new members—this past year we went in September with Derek Jeter’s group—and you sit there and listen, in many of the speeches they go over their life and try to remember who was important, and who got them to where they are. All of them have stories of coaches. So when you think about the influence a coach has on your life in sports, you’re teaching many valuable lessons. Your individual responsibility to the group, your team responsibility. We inherently know it, because we lived it.
When you put a bat in a kid’s hands who hadn’t had a bat in his hands, and all of a sudden, this kid has an innate ability to hit the ball, you see a confidence grow in him in a minute. Sometimes there’s a pecking order where the biggest, strongest kid pushes his way to the front of the line. He’ll be leading by force. I remember that happened when I was flipping baseballs to kids in our group. The big kid came up, I threw the ball, and he swung mightily and missed it by about two feet. Then he missed it again. He had trouble hitting the ball. Then a small kid came up right after that and all of a sudden, he was hitting it, and all the other kids wanted to know from the little kid how he does it. The big kid kind of got mad at that. It changed the leadership profile.
Baseball is a sport not dependent on size. Size helps, athleticism helps, but we’ve had [short] MVPs like Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve. It doesn’t discriminate at all.
So what else is keeping you busy these days?
Since COVID and since I had my scare with prostate cancer, it sort of changed my perspective on how you spend your time. COVID forces you to buckle down. I always valued my home life. Certainly, you really understand that there’s a balance you need to achieve. I enjoy being home, I enjoy a little bit slower pace. I think I make my decisions more carefully now. It used to be I would say yes all the time.
What’s your competitive outlet these days?
I don’t feel the need to compete across the field anymore. But you want to do things right, and your own competitive standard applies. So I think I compete more with myself just to try to achieve the standard that we’re looking for and try to do well.
What do you think your dad would say about the work you and Bill and so many others are doing with the foundation?
I think he’d be extremely proud. Every time we go out to a field, I picture him grabbing a rake or a shovel or maybe getting behind the wheel of a Bobcat and actually doing the work himself. My dad in spring training at the minor league complex just outside of Miami, he would do things during the day baseball-wise, and when he finished baseball, he would help build the rest of the complex at night.
So I picture him as being very hands-on. He would have wanted to make sure that each one of these ballparks were built right, and I think he’d see the opportunity of making them special for the kids. I picture him having relationships with the grounds crews, with the construction crews. He’d be right in the middle of it.
[Editor’s Note: Interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.]