One-on-One with Peter Schmuck: Cal Ripken Jr.

It's hard to believe, but the fresh-faced kid who burst into the Orioles lineup in 1982, caught the final out of the World Series in 1983 and broke Lou Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable consecutive games record in 1995 has reached the half-century mark. Cal Ripken Jr. turns 50 on Tuesday, so we thought it was a perfect time to sit down with him and talk about his great career, his reaction to the Big 5-0 and his plans for the future. This is the first in an occasional series of one-on-one interviews conducted by Peter Schmuck with some of Maryland's most talked-about sports figures.

Schmuck: Fifty years old. Is that a scary thought?

Ripken: I'm still acting like a child. No, and I don't know why yet. Normally, some people think about 50 as a big moment in life. I kind of think 30 because in your baseball career, 30 was considered on top kind of looking at the end of your career. So I remember thinking about 30 in different ways, but 50 just seems like another step right now.

Schmuck: Now I would have thought as a baseball player it would be 40 because 40 is, though you went a little bit beyond it, 40 seems like the most obvious age barrier for a baseball player.

Ripken: Yeah, but what people tell me about 50 is they look at it in reference to their whole life, and 50 kind of might be the halfway point. Up until 50 you're not thinking about the end of your life, and then at 50 you're starting to think about the downhill side. I don't know if that's true or not because I haven't felt it personally, but if I look at it in my baseball thing, I remember thinking much more at 30 the unknown about how much more you are going to play. You've been playing for a while, and it seems like you look at everybody else's history. As you said, Brooks Robinson played a long time, and I'm thinking, "OK, this is probably the halfway point," and you start to have doubts about the end of it. You didn't know when it was going to end. Forty, to me that was kind of easy because you're glad to be playing baseball when you're 40 and you know it's at the end, so there weren't any surprises. Maybe you get started later in life, in business later on in life, so my 50 might be someone else's 40 or someone else's 30. I'm not sure.

Schmuck: You know you're 50 when you go from being interviewed by ESPN to being interviewed by AARP.

Ripken: (Laughs.) I don't know what to say about that. Yes, I guess. I think I've been interviewed by AARP and actually spoke to the group when I was younger.

Schmuck: Fifteen years ago — two weeks down the road — 15 years ago, you broke Lou Gehrig's record. Does it amaze you that it was 15 years ago?

Ripken: I think that since I retired it's been the fastest 10 years, I think. In baseball, there were moments where it went really fast, normally when you were playing well and you were winning, and those seasons went by really quickly. The longer seasons were when you were losing and you're trying to figure out how to get to the end. When you look back on the streak, in many ways it seems like it was yesterday. It's still fresh in your mind. It's there. But then the realization really hits you when you see the images of your kids and you see a glimpse of that night on TV and you realize how small your kids were and how grown up they are now, and that's the reality that hits you that it is 15 years. In many ways, it doesn't seem like that. It seems like yesterday.

Schmuck: If you ask your fans, "What is Cal Ripken's greatest accomplishment?" they all would automatically go to that moment, and maybe you would have that day, but do you have a different perspective at 50 years old? What do you think is your greatest accomplishment of your first 50 years?

Ripken: Throwing baseball aside for a minute, I think the thing that gives you the most satisfaction and joy is to bring kids into the world and help them to prepare for their life. That, ultimately, is the most fulfilling thing. There's no road map for it. There's no book that says this is how to do it. You're operating off your morals and principles and your values, and you're managing and helping every step of the way, and it's hard. So, that gives me the … You know, even athletically when Ryan does a few things athletically or Rachel skiing when she does things, it almost seems like it's way more satisfying when they do it than if I did it. It's 10 times the feeling of satisfaction when they have success in doing something. Don't know why, but it's true. In baseball, the easy moment is the unique moment of 2,131 15 years ago turned out to be a wonderful human moment. There was a lot of interaction between many different parties, and that included my own family, my dad, the other team, the fans…

Schmuck: … and Joe DiMaggio. He wept.

Ripken: …Yes, Joe DiMaggio. You can keep going on and on about the interactions of people, which makes it a great drama and great event and you'll always hold that special, but if you're looking at a baseball moment, the feeling you get when you win the World Series by far exceeds anything else in the game that you're able to do.

Schmuck: And I'm not going to tell you how long ago that was …

Ripken: And that does seem like a long time ago in many ways, too. That goes all the way back. People that haven't felt that, if I'm comparing feelings that go through your body when you go through your full baseball career, and I was lucky enough to have a full one, that one moment, that happened early in my career, you catch the ball [to end the deciding game], and the fulfillment and satisfaction and the joy that comes with that one moment wasn't paralleled by any of the other things.

Schmuck: Cal, a World Series in 1983; two MVPs; you got to play with your brother and dad on the same team; 2,131; the Hall of Fame; and you've done a lot since then. You've had some tremendous success. You've done a lot of things you probably thought about doing while you were playing the game. So you're 50 years old, a half century. What's left on your bucket list?

Ripken: I don't look at it that way. We just got back from South Africa on a family vacation. I think my wife kind of looks at things on your list that you'd like to do while you can do them. We'd always talked about going to Africa and going on safari and we've all been interested, and for whatever reason you can make an excuse that the timing wasn't right and the kids' schedules and finally we had a window of time — about 10 days — and my wife said, "That's it, we're going," and we all went down there and had a great time on safari, and it was just the most unique, wonderful time you could have. It almost seems like the rest of the world goes away for a while and it's just you guys in that environment, which is so cool, and I think my wife in some ways thinks about what's the next thing on your list you want to see or you want to do. I'm someone that is a grinder from playing baseball every day, and the accomplishments that come as you grind and go through it, those are the things that are very satisfying. You forget, we're up in our [Cal Ripken] World Series now, and you see the kids there, and I think this is our eighth one in Aberdeen and 11th one overall and to really think about what it was like in the very beginning to where we are now, or look at the quality of the fields or how many kids have actually experienced joy there or Myrtle Beach, you know the accumulation of all those feelings mean the world to me. You forget that you have had some successes and you have moved the ball down the road as far as the World Series is concerned and the experiences for the kids and actually the quality of your tournaments and the quality of your teaching and your programming. All those things have grown up quite a bit. But when you're in the day-to-day grind, it just seems like it's another step along the way. But I find joy in the actual process, the journey, the work. It's not the end. It's not the end event.

Schmuck: You've created this great youth baseball program. You've got minor league parks and teams arrayed around the East. The last few months, there has been a lot of talk about this coming full circle and coming back to the major leagues. Where are you with that right now in your mind?

Ripken: I think you do a little long-term planning, and I did when I first retired. You take stock of what you want to do. I stayed attached to baseball through the kids and through minor league baseball, and I'm very satisfied with the schedule it allows me to have, which means I'm home until my kids go off to college. I value that time. I didn't have it with my dad, and since I had a choice, I chose to do that and chose to be there for all their events in their lives. And then when you start to look down the road, and I think we all think maybe in terms of five years and maybe sometimes as long as 10, but recently I've been starting to think about, you know, all this other stuff is great, but what do you really know about? And what I really know about is baseball at the highest level. So, those conversations have been ongoing with Mr. A [Orioles owner Peter Angelos] for a long time. I did talk to Andy MacPhail because I was in the design process for a little while with the spring training process and got to know Andy a little bit, so that naturally kind of elevated some of the conversations, but they're really just explorations of … how do you bridge back? If there is interest and there is opportunity, what kind of opportunity will it be? What are you interested in? What are you not interested in? And I think the urgency got pushed way forward when the Orioles got off to a tough start. Speculation then sort of occurs, and maybe there was wishful thinking on many people's parts, but, you know, then you have to deal with it in a way. For me, it's just an ongoing process. It's been that way and it continues to be that way, and I'm satisfied. I'm not ready to jump in with both feet these days because Ryan is a junior in high school and Rachel is a junior in college, so that timetable still important to me, and I won't separate from that.

Schmuck: We're sitting here in your office, and there is this huge picture of your dad behind your desk. He's quite a symbol of the Oriole Way. He's the symbol of the Oriole Way. Does that picture ever say to you, "Go fix that."

Ripken: No, because if you look at the Oriole Way and then it kind of evolved into something like the Ripken Way. Dad was part of the Oriole Way. He was one of many players, one of many instructors and many people in the organization that pulled together in the right way, kept what worked and created a system of teaching and development that turned out to be the Oriole Way. And as the Orioles changed a little bit over time and there were fewer and fewer of those people left — my dad was one of the last men standing in that organization that goes back — and so then it started to be called the Ripken Way. We then capitalized on the Ripken Way in teaching things that we identify and communicate, but in the end, it's about organizational excellence, and I think the Orioles are still aspiring to go back to organizational excellence, and — looking [at] what Andy's done gathering some young talent — they've got some talent here. It's just a matter of getting them to play better, and it is about the people that are building something that could be called the Oriole Way again. So I don't look there. Dad sits there. Many times when dad died, I thought my safety net was gone, but in many ways, in all ways, he sits on my shoulder. It's ironic, I sit at my desk and he is over my shoulder, watching everything we do, and I think more in terms of dad and the development of young kids and young people and young men that he stood for for many years. Certainly, there is a feel of getting back to big league baseball in some capacity. I don't know what that is yet.

Schmuck: The last two or three weeks, things for the Orioles have turned up a little bit, probably not coincidentally when they hired Buck Showalter. What was your gut feeling when you first heard about that hire and what do you think now?

Ripken: I had a chance to know Buck a long time. I played against him in Double-A, so I think Buck is one of the best baseball minds around. I really enjoyed his analysis on ESPN. He's one of the guys you sit there and look at and you really start shaking your head when he starts talking. And I've known that about Buck for a long time. He handles all the little things. He looks at the game the way Dad did in many ways, with all the details. If you take care of all the little things, you won't have one big thing to worry about. He knows the game inside and out. So it's not … I don't know specifically what he did to actually change the mind-set, but they are playing with fewer mistakes and they are playing the game and their talent is starting to come through. So maybe it's just a matter of Buck does carry a lot of respect and a lot of confidence and since he knows this game and it's pretty obvious when you go in there. [Former manager Dave] Trembley might have said the same thing in a meeting, but Buck could say something entirely different, and with his history, it might be taken a different way. I don't know what exactly he did, but he's done something, and I would venture to say that it is Buck that's made a difference in how they're playing right now.

Schmuck: You've made it clear that if you do come back with the Orioles, it will be a progressive thing. You won't jump in feet-first. Down the line, do you have a person you would emulate. I'm thinking someone like [ Texas Rangers president] Nolan Ryan. Is that the kind of role you're thinking about at some point?

Ripken: I don't know. Obviously, Nolan would be good to talk to. I haven't sat down and had a conversation with him about it. Having done some of the things that we've been able to do in the last 10 years, you kind of learn about business, you find yourself establishing systems. And, I think, a baseball organization is just a matter of establishing a lot of systems. There is a scouting philosophy. There is a group of people who go out and employ that scouting philosophy. There is a developmental philosophy about how you bring people through. And then once you get the talent at the big league level, it's how you play the game. Most of my experience has been how you play the game because I was on the field in an operational sense all those years. Dad had a wealth of knowledge and philosophies that he passed on to us, you know, about what are you looking for in a pitcher and what you're looking for in a regular player and how you develop people. So, a lot of those things dad taught us, we're applying at the younger levels. Last year, my experience with the [Gilman] high school team was fantastic for me. I was an assistant to Larry Sheets, as you know, and sitting on the bench and looking at it, you see a group of young guys who are 16 years old and some of the things you're giving them, you realize that confidence goes up and down really quickly and you have to push them along in a confident sort of way. I first did it to help out the program, just for my son's benefit, but I got more benefit out of it just being with Larry and watching the team develop and being able to help them. I kind of figured out it's very rewarding what Dad did all those years, and I got a little taste of it last year. I found myself looking forward to 2 o'clock in the afternoon, when I would go up and get things ready and throw batting practice and work with the kids. It was a fun experience.

Schmuck: You've got a half century in, and we've talked a little bit about what's going to happen over the next half century. Is there anything over the past half century that if you could do it differently, you would do differently?

Ripken: I don't think so. The funny question you ask is "If you could go back to 21, would you?" and I immediately say, "No." There's a lot of things you go through learning about yourself. In an ideal way of your baseball career, you'd like to have something like Derek Jeter would have, where a bad year is losing in the first round of the playoffs, if you really think about it, or Chipper Jones' run with 14 straight and they're in the playoffs all the time. You want to have success and be playing in the postseason every single year. Looking back at my career, I had a chance to do that early, and we had a couple chances to come back to that excitement of playoff baseball. But all your struggles and all the problems or even the 0-21 [start to the 1988 season], they are all learning experiences for your life, and I think you learn more when you go through the tough times and you get to the other side than you do when you just constantly have good things happen to you, so I wouldn't change a thing.

Schmuck: Two quick word association questions. What, at 50, makes Cal Ripken feel young?

Ripken: Working with kids. It's kind of funny. I joked as a baseball player, when you have a career in baseball, you never have to grow up. If you look at the players around, you have many examples of that. I always felt like a kid. My job was actually playing a game. You're almost insulated from growing up to real responsibility. I think what keeps you young is to keep that mind-set that you're still a kid, you're still aspiring, you're still learning, you're still energetic and curious about everything you do.

Schmuck: And what makes Cal Ripken feel old?

Ripken: Seeing your kids grow up. The reality is, they're becoming grown-ups and you'll always see them some ways and you'll remember them really quickly as babies and that they were very dependent on you, and [to] actually see them grow up and do grown-up things, that makes you feel old.

Schmuck: Well, happy birthday anyway.

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