When Cal Ripken Jr. built his youth baseball facility in Aberdeen, Md., he wanted kids to feel what it is like to play in big-league stadiums. He spent heavily to construct a 3,500-seat replica of Camden Yards, complete with a hotel that stands in for the right-field warehouse in Baltimore.
"Billy built a fake brick wall behind (the fence), and we've put ivy around the wall,'' Ripken said. "The only problem is deer keep eating the ivy.''
One problem the Cubs don't have.
The ivy will be real for Ripken on Saturday, when he serves as a spokesman and coach for the Under Armour All America Baseball Game at Wrigley Field. This will be the fourth year that top high school players from around the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico have played this game, and the second year they've come to Chicago for the event, which really should be on any baseball junkie's calendar.
The top high school player in the country, Lance McCullers Jr. of Tampa, Fla., isn't coming. But that's because he was in the 2010 game, after his sophomore year at Jesuit High.
Hayden Hurst, a 6-5 right-hander from Jacksonville, Fla., and first baseman Ryan Ripken (Cal's son) will be two of the players watched most closely as scouts keep an eye on four days of baseball activities.
Ripken, who along with Billy founded Ripken Baseball in 2001, believes it's the type of event that makes development more fun for talented players.
He acknowledges that fewer players are playing baseball in the United States because of the growth of sports such as lacrosse, hockey and soccer but sees players having the chance to play more than he did when he was growing up around Earl Weaver's Orioles.
"Kids are making specialty choices earlier than before,'' Ripken said. "But the kids who want to play baseball are getting a grander experience, which makes it fun.''
Cal and Billy got a chance to grow up in a baseball environment through their father, longtime Orioles coach Cal Sr. They remember what the game looked like when they were the wide-eyed kids, which is the experience they're trying to pass along to teenagers.
One of Cal's favorite photos is of his son, Ryan, touching home plate at Fenway Park as a 6-year-old at the 1999 All-Star Game. Cal had invited his son into the dugout after he was out of the game, and between innings they ran across the field to get to the media room.
It's doubtful the Angels would have traded their longtime catcher directly to Texas, but he wound up there when the Blue Jays spun him for reliever Frank Francisco after acquiring him in the deal that sent Vernon Wells to Anaheim.
While being ultraproductive as a hitter (1.004 OPS entering the weekend), Napoli has become a favorite target for Texas pitchers.
His 2.37 catcher's ERA was the lowest among major-leaguers with at least 250 innings caught.
"I always felt like I was looking over my shoulder to see if I was doing things right," Napoli told the Dallas Morning News. "I had 'bad hands.' I was so worried about my setup and the mechanics all the time. I learned a lot. I learned a lot of what I do there, but playing there just wasn't much fun.''
When Napoli was acquired, the plan was to use him at first base and DH, but he's getting more time behind the plate than he was early in the season. "`I feel like I know the game," Napoli said. The regular guy: Hunter Pence is off to a running start in Philadelphia, charging toward October with a newcomer's enthusiasm. That was exactly what Charlie Manuel hoped he'd bring.
"What happens is, players become such big celebrities," Manuel said. "It's kind of natural that their ego, their hat size grows. You know to make changes sometimes to keep them at that level, because we do have some hard players, some tough players, and the season is 162 games."
Manuel always worries about something.
The last word: "It does prove one thing. That we're not cheating at home.'' —Maddon on the Rays averaging 5.1 runs on the road and 3.4 at Tropicana Field.