By Childs Walker
July 28, 2007
Many of America's greatest athletes have stumbled in the transition from dominating on the field to crafting another career off it. Michael Jordan got himself fired in three years because he couldn't take orders or find new talent. Mickey Mantle suffered through idle days that left him craving alcohol and dreaming of taking the field one last time. Bad investments brought Johnny Unitas to the brink of financial ruin.
But Cal Ripken Jr. is different. He planted the seeds of a thriving off-field life long before he quit playing and has nurtured his creation in the six years between his last game and tomorrow's induction into the Hall of Fame.
Those seeds have grown into a multi-dimensional and profitable corporation: Ripken Baseball Inc. owns two minor league teams, including one in Aberdeen, and has annual revenue of about $25 million; Ripken is a marketing force who appears in more commercials than most active players; and he can charge at least $50,000 for speeches to business groups around the country.
"There's no question he's done an exceptional job of extending himself as a brand," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "I think especially in this current environment of sports where everything is so scandal-ridden, this guy who stands for class and real accomplishment will have more and more opportunities. He's put himself in extremely rare air."
But, in other ways, he has made the very qualities that distinguished him as a player - an analytical nature and a deep devotion to learning and teaching baseball - into the core principles of a growing business empire different from those of his superstar peers.
"He had a thirst for knowledge outside of baseball unlike any other professional athlete I've seen," said his longtime agent Ron Shapiro, who has counted five Hall of Famers as clients. "I've never seen anyone take control of his post-playing life like Cal has."
Ripken's father lived to teach baseball, often using the game as a metaphor for the simplest life lessons conveyed at the dinner table. So Ripken and his brother, former Orioles second baseman Bill, have opened youth training facilities in Aberdeen and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Their 50-acre complex in Harford County features a field of dreams for young players, who contest games in sparkling mini-replicas of Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Camden Yards. Through a foundation named after their father, the Ripkens have donated more than $4 million to rehabilitate fields and outfit teams in underprivileged areas.
Cal Ripken Sr. also spent much of his life working in the minor leagues. His sons, naturally, own two minor league teams, with plans to purchase as many as eight more.
And Cal Ripken Jr., 46, is no passive owner. He can discuss ballpark layouts, food (he introduced steamed crabs at Aberdeen) and even the value of a good mascot.
He said the key to his smooth transition is simple. He didn't try to master businesses that meant nothing to him. Instead, he used his resources to amplify themes and interests that have run through his entire life.
"I knew that teaching the game really drove my dad," said Ripken. "He always seemed to be happiest when he was teaching kids about the game. As Bill and I got into teaching, it became clear that we gained the same level of satisfaction from it as Dad did and it just grew from there."
Those who knew Ripken's father admire the way the son has transferred his family's values into post-playing businesses.
"I think he's done a marvelous job," Hall of Fame pitcher and former teammate Jim Palmer said. "He's been able to give back. He did that as a player, and he's done that since he stopped with all of his youth programs. When you think about it, he maximizes being Cal Ripken Jr. He's not just signing his name to an endorsement deal."
The businesses work economically, Shapiro said.
"But are they values-based businesses? Absolutely," he added. "They are cast in the mold of values he inherited from his father and mother - baseball as a model for teaching life principles. That's written large in Ripken Baseball, and I think that makes it easier for Cal to feel good about what he does in addition to making a living."
Ripken's fame and wealth offered no guarantee of post-playing happiness.
"The biggest problem for guys who have big names is that they often can trade off those names, but they don't find a lot of fulfillment just doing that," said former Green Bay Packers lineman Ken Ruettgers, who counsels athletes on the transition from playing. "Yet it can be hard to leave that identity behind."
Ruettgers said many players who fail at business sign away their names and offer financing but never get involved in the nuts and bolts of their new endeavors.
Shapiro agreed, noting that players become so used to being lauded and accommodated that many struggle upon becoming business apprentices. Many players want to become broadcasters, and Shapiro said he advises them to really learn that business. He uses former Oriole Ken Singleton, who worked as an unpaid intern at local television stations long before he became a New York Yankees analyst, as a model.
"If they don't show that commitment, they're just another personality," Shapiro said.
Ruettgers tells athletes there's nothing wrong with staying in sports if that's where they're comfortable. "That's the easiest way to transition, because then you're only switching roles and not industries," he said. "When I went to a 10-year reunion of our Super Bowl team, the happiest guys were probably the ones coaching high school football. A lot of the others were still trying to find themselves."
"I'd still like to live my life learning baseball, being a student of the game, experiencing many things," he told The Sun a few weeks before his final game. "I'd like to pass some of that on and test myself and test my philosophies."
Ripken had that answer ready, Shapiro said, because he'd been thinking about it for years. He first discussed post-playing life with his agent only a few seasons into his career.
Ripken conceived of his umbrella company, Ripken Baseball Inc., in the early 1990s as a way to manage his endorsements and appearance schedule. He invested in the $35 million complex in Aberdeen almost two years before he quit playing. As he entered his minor league endeavors - the Ripkens also own a team in Augusta, Ga. - his curiosity for business became apparent.
Games at Ripken Stadium, which opened in 2002, routinely sell out. Youth baseball teams crowd the fields around the park every weekend in the summer, and Cal Ripken Baseball, a national league for 12-year-olds, has more than 1 million players.
The Aberdeen complex has received less positive attention in recent weeks as city officials have said they're not receiving as much revenue as expected. State lawmakers have asked Ripken to renegotiate terms with the city to ease its financial burden.
Though Ripken can appear mesmerized as he discusses minor league business, he has long acknowledged the tug of running a major league club.
"If there was an opportunity - and I always preface this by saying if it would fit with my personal life and my schedule - where I could come back and shape, or help shape, an organization, I certainly would consider that," he said.
Running the show has been a strong attraction for many former stars. Some, such as Jerry West and Ozzie Newsome, have succeeded. Many more, from Jordan to Ripken's former teammate Mike Flanagan, have struggled to recapture the success they achieved as players.
Ripken has said that if Peter Angelos moves to sell the Orioles, he'd like to join an ownership group.
Managing, though it was his father's dream job, holds less allure for him. With his children still at home, he does not want to go back on the road for large stretches of the year.
"If you're looking at baseball jobs and things that fascinated me when I played, I always managed along with the manager," he said. "So managing a team from a strategic standpoint and looking at where pieces fit and how you play it out for a season, I've always been interested in that. Does that mean I'm interested in a managing job? I don't know. Certainly not at this moment. ... You never say never because you don't know how life is going to turn out, but probably not."
Ripken encourages other athletes to be as analytical as he was about the future.
"When you are an athlete, you have the chance to meet many interesting and smart people, and ... you can pick their brains and form relationships that could help you down the road," Ripken said. "Find something you are passionate about and pursue it and surround yourself with the right people to help you achieve your goals."
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