A future baseball hall of Famer isn't likely to live vicariously through his kids, least of all Cal Ripken Jr., who has a 10-year-old, Ryan, and who has focused since his retirement on remaking youth sports. In 1999 Ripken took over the Babe Ruth League's five-to-12-year-old Bambino division (renamed Cal Ripken Baseball) with the hope that changes he wants to introduce will bring the game more in line with what kids want. "Youth baseball has gotten way too serious, emphasizing winning at all costs and not teaching the right lessons," he says. "With Babe Ruth baseball's help, I'd like to reduce the pressure and put more emphasis on teaching skills."
Ripken sees lessons for parents and coaches in how his late father, Cal Sr., managed minor league prospects for 13 years in the Baltimore Orioles' organization. "He would make notes during a game, but teaching would take place afterward, when the moment wasn't emotionally charged," Ripken says. "Too many times somebody makes a mistake and a coach will say, 'Hey, you've got to back up that play. Where were you?' [Adults] might tell a 10-year-old, 'Focus!'—but kids aren't there yet. They can't 'take a deep breath.' A 10-year-old who's singled out, he'll just cringe. It zaps him from having fun."
When Ripken looks at his son, who plays soccer and basketball in addition to baseball, he sees a typical 10-year-old: a kid with some talent, a lot of desire, but a fragile confidence that an aggressive 11- or 12-year-old could easily snuff out. Ryan is passionate enough about sports that he'll brood after a loss. That's when his dad tries to turn a pout into a positive. "You have a gift," Cal will say. "You care. Manage it properly, and you can apply that power inside you positively to your sport."
After Ryan's soccer team lost on a late goal and the players were moping around, Cal simply picked up a ball and kicked it as high as he could. Soon kids joined him, and parents, too. "Within minutes of losing, without saying a word, this weird pickup game had broken out, all because they wanted to have fun," Ripken says. "If you're interacting with a kid, you have to think like a kid."
He believes other youth sports should emulate the spirit of lacrosse tournaments in which his daughter, Rachel, 13, plays near their home in suburban Baltimore. "There's one [tournament] that's a celebration of lacrosse," he says. "It's food, families and having fun. It sends a message that's positive.
"From parents I'll hear, 'In our house we treat baseball the same as homework,' or 'He's not really into it, but he'll thank me someday'—but it has to come from the kid. Otherwise you're taking the enjoyment and love out. You have to let kids be kids, especially 10-year-olds. Let them learn themselves, and if they build a base, they'll carry it with them their whole lives."