It's a familiar story.

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."

Shades of Senior
Some of Ripken's ventures - motivational speeches, memorabilia deals, self-help and instructional books and commercials for Comcast, Bank of America and Energizer - are straight out of the ex-athlete playbook.

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."