At Blue Crab tournament, Ripken brothers continue youth initiative

In Cal Ripken Jr.’s early years of parenthood, his son, Ryan Ripken, would often ask his Hall of Fame father if he’d like to join in on a video game session or two. Cal never yanked the cord from the wall and demanded Ryan to find something to do outside, but instead turned the gentle request into a meaningful moment.

“I’d always resist the temptation and say, ‘Well, daddy likes to play the real game. If you want to go outside and play the real game, I’m glad to do it,’” the elderly Ripken said Wednesday inside an office at Leidos Field in Aberdeen, not long before a scheduled appearance at his Blue Crab Week-Long Experience. “You almost make it a choice between should I choose the video game without my dad, or play the real game with my dad? You have to be an example for him.”

During the age of glitzy electronics and phone addiction, competition for the attention of American youth has never been challenged quite like this before. In spite of the upstream battle, the Ripkens’ model centered on their family’s staple values, cutting-edge philosophies, and tournaments like the week-long Blue Crab Experience have helped strengthen the baseball presence locally, nationally and globally.

Along with his brother, Bill Ripken, and Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, this emphasis on bringing baseball to young people has been Cal Ripken’s focus since he retired in 2001, especially over the past three years.

“We sit down and talk about things, like how do we make the game more appealing to the kids. How do you make it more action-oriented?” said Cal Ripken, who’s served as MLB's special advisor to the Commissioner on youth programs and outreach since December 2015. “The commissioner is committed to making baseball more appealing to a younger audience. The demographic for watching baseball on TV and in the ballparks are getting old. For the future of the game, you want to get more young people interested.”

While Wednesday marked the fourth of six days for the once-a-year Blue Crab Week-Long Experience in Aberdeen, which attracts some of the top 11U, 12U and 13U talent across the East Coast, it also played host to a skills competition, clinic and Q&A with Cal and Bill Ripken.

The skills competition included the classic home run derby and a challenge for which infield can turn a series of double plays the fastest. Ripken and his team still have work to do, he says, but he likes to compare the skills competition to “Superstars,” which used to pit elite athletes from different sports against one another in a series of athletic events resembling a decathlon.

“If you could bring that down to the kids, you could have greater participation for the team guys,” Cal Ripken said. “It almost proved who the best athlete in the group was. That’s not necessarily who throws the ball the hardest, who hits the ball the farthest, who is fastest around the bases.”

After the skills competition, Cal and Bill Ripken segued into their clinic on fundamentals of fielding.

“If you can catch the ball and throw the ball, then you got a chance to play this game,” Bill Ripken told the crowd.

In every teaching, the Ripken brothers always adhere to “The Ripken Way,” a mission set forth by their late father, Cal Ripken Sr. It involves four core pillars: “Keep it simple,” “explain the why,” “celebrate the individual,” and “have fun.”

“It was an old-school sort of approach. It was a learned way. And it was a supportive way,” Cal Ripken Jr. said. “It stood for something. It’s the same sort of logic applying to the kids’ model. We’re proud of it. We think it tributes to dad as well.”

Over the last couple of years at select camps, Ripken and his team have tested an innovative, up-beat version of the game called “Hit and Run Baseball.” Instead of the conventional three outs, games are five batters per inning with situational circumstances — like having stranded baserunners carry over to the next inning.

Games are six innings and typically take an hour, Cal Ripken said.

“We’re creating action moments,” he said. “It keeps people on the edge of their toes. The fielders have to think about situations, where people are on base, what do I do? And the pitchers with different counts have to throw strikes. The action of the ball happens much quicker.”

There’s also an extra incentive during “Hit and Run” games. If a team can transition from the end of a half inning to its defensive position within 12 seconds, they are rewarded an extra at-bat the following inning. If that team can transition to their defensive position within 12 seconds for five straight innings, those teams are rewarded an extra two batters for the final frame.

“Many times, when you watch some tournament games, you’ll see some kids walking out of the dugout and to their positions,” Cal Ripken said. “You want to encourage them to run when they’re sent out.”

Ripken said “Hit and Run Baseball” is still in the testing stage and no tournaments with the format are in the near future.

For now, though, he’s just living out the dream his father instilled many moons ago.

“My dad never put pressure on any of us to play,” Ripken said. “He’d show us an example on how to play. He instilled a love in the game in us by how he loved the game. … You have to be that example.”

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