They're starting to get just a little edgy with each other, the Little League people and the Babe Ruth people. Ron Tellefsen, the CEO of Babe Ruth, isn't afraid to sound like a rabble-rouser. "Our athletes are with host families in Mattoon," he boasts. "In Williamsport, the kids stay in barracks."
Van Auken, as the voice of the senior circuit, responds without emotion. "Barracks is a military term," he says. "Our players stay in modern dormitories, with shatterproof glass and scald-free showers. The kids have a great time staying in them."
Van Auken points out, coolly, of course, that in 1973 Ripken was the losing pitcher for his West Asheville, N.C., team in the Little League Southern Regional tournament. He makes sure you know that in 1996, when Ripken was inducted into the Little League Hall of Excellence, his agent approached officials in Williamsport about attaching the Iron Man's name to Little League in some way—a merger of an American baseball hero and an American sporting institution. The talks went nowhere, Van Auken says, because "we don't name our programs after particular players."
Ripken says he knows nothing about that overture to Little League. His focus is only on the future. He has notebooks filled with ideas about how to improve Cal Ripken Baseball. He'd like to have a certification program for coaches and umpires and an oath of good behavior for parents. He thinks kids shouldn't show bunt and then not bunt. "That's just trying to confuse the pitcher," he says. He thinks outfield fences and pitcher's mounds need to be moved out, to accommodate today's well-fed kids. Then there's his "whisper rule."
"I was at one of Ryan's games this year, and the coach of the other team was saying to his batter, 'You're the man. Make him throw strikes. He's having control problems. Make him come to you,' " Ripken said the other day. "Normally at these games I'm very quiet. But this was too much. So I said to him, 'Are you talking to your batter or our pitcher?' What grown-up can't get in the head of a little guy and have an impact on the outcome of the game?" In the presence of the great Ripken, the overzealous coach grew immediately silent. "You can either water the seed or kill it," Ripken says.
Ripken's involvement in youth baseball is not purely altruistic. It gives him a national booth from which to sell instructional books and CD-ROMs and sign kids up for his baseball camps. Ripken's value to the companies he endorses, particularly Coca-Cola and Chevy Trucks, increases as he remains in the public eye. There's all sorts of synergy, to borrow one of Ripken's new words. (He uses many of the buzzwords and phrases of the modern businessman: signage, amenities, distribution strategies) Here's some synergy for you: Chevy Trucks is the main sponsor of the Cal Ripken World Series.
But money is not Ripken's motivation. He's in youth baseball to honor the memory of his baseball-loving father, to keep busy, to do a new tiling well. "Ron Tellefsen saw an opportunity for Babe Ruth to re-brand its lower division for me," says Ripken. "At first it seemed weird, because I was still playing. But the more I thought about it, I saw an opportunity to directly impact the grass roots of baseball."
In Aberdeen, Ripken is building a baseball Mecca right off I-95, the main street of the Eastern Seaboard. There's already a magnificent new ballpark that houses a Ripken-owned minor league Orioles affiliate, the Class A Aberdeen IronBirds. Next door construction is under way on the Cal Ripken Baseball Academy, where there will be at least four fields (each patterned after a famous major league park), one of which will become the home of the Cal Ripken World Series. Someday, maybe, Aberdeen will be as famous as Williamsport.
Earlier this year Ripken had a series of meetings with Paul Seiler, the executive director of USA Baseball, the national governing body for amateur baseball. The two men talked about moving the organization's headquarters from Tucson to Aberdeen. The deal did not materialize, but Seiler was impressed by Ripken's commitment to amateur baseball.
"You know that Cal Ripken Baseball will be run Cal's way and will be excellent," says Seiler. "This is a great time for amateur baseball, with the Ripken World Series and the Little League World Series going on. Cal's league can only improve Little League. Competition is good. But the reality is that when major league baseball has labor woes, there are ramifications all the way down. Parents get turned off, and then their kids get turned off. Cal's going to find the same challenges that we all find: How does baseball compete with skateboarding and Nintendo and soccer?"