Spring seems to be coming early to the east, so talking business of baseball makes great sense, and who better to get thoughts from than Cal Ripken. One of the sports’ greatest ambassadors and businessmen, Ripken’s name has become synonymous with strength, character, perseverance and integrity. In 1999, Babe Ruth League Inc. changed the name of its largest division (5-12 year-olds) from Bambino to Cal Ripken Baseball. Presently, over 700,000 youths play Cal Ripken Baseball worldwide.
Now, Ripken is using the platform that baseball has provided him to help grow the game he loves at the grassroots level. After his playing career ended he started this effort with the construction of a one-of-a-kind baseball complex in his hometown of Aberdeen, Maryland. The Aberdeen project consists of Ripken Stadium and The Ripken Experience Aberdeen Powered by Under Armour youth baseball complex. Ripken Stadium is a state-of-the-art minor league ballpark that is home to the Aberdeen IronBirds the Class A short-season affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. The Ripken Experience complex hosts ballplayers and teams from across the country for camps and tournaments during the spring, summer and fall. Due to the success of the Aberdeen youth complex as a tournament destination and the desire to grow the game of baseball worldwide, Ripken opened The Ripken Experience complex in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and The Ripken Experience in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
As he expands the grassroots and community efforts, Ripken and his team have decided to part business ways with their minor league franchises, one of which is the Ironbirds of the New York Penn League. We caught up with Cal to talk grassroots, why he is selling, and how he and those around him have helped grow the game of baseball from the bottom up.
Ripken Baseball built a minor league franchise in an area not known for pro sports. How was Aberdeen selected?
Aberdeen is our hometown. My original idea was focused squarely on the kids side and building a facility focusing on the grassroots. To make the funding more appealing to the City and County there was a push to add a minor league team and ballpark to the mix. So, the day after I played my final game I put on a suit, flew to Utica, NY to purchase the Blue Sox and, with Mr. Angelos’ blessing the team moved to Aberdeen and became an Orioles affiliate.
We’re you happy with getting the franchise as to where it is now?
Absolutely. Ripken Stadium has become a wonderful community gathering point and has become a significant part of the Harford County community. This is a big reason we want to find a strategic partner and stay involved in a minority role. The stadium bears our name and this is our home, we care deeply about the IronBirds and its success. In fact in 2017 we will make the experience even better with a new video board from Daktronics
What were some of the best moments to date?
The first game was something I will never forget, the place was electric, mom threw out the first pitch, it was incredibly satisfying to see it come to fruition. Since then we have had plenty of memorable nights at the ballpark and I never tire of being there, in fact I plan to be at a good amount of games in 2017.
Why sell now?
This is the culmination of a process that began several years ago. We determined that minor league ball is not our focus and so we have sold our teams in Port Charlotte, FL and Augusta, GA and now we have our sights set on selling the majority interest in the IronBirds. Unlike the other teams we do need to find a true partner as this is our hometown and we will remain involved with the club. In addition, the stadium lives on the same property as our Ripken Experience youth complex and there is consistent integration between the two.
The business is now focused on the grassroots. How have the efforts helped grow baseball regionally, nationally?
We now have three Ripken Experience complexes that host hundreds of youth teams from around the world each year … Aberdeen, Md.; Myrtle Beach, Sc.; and Pigeon Forge, Tn. Enthusiasm for baseball and softball remains very high and giving young ballplayers a big league experience will only continue to grow that. In addition, we are working closely with Major League Baseball on their efforts to grow the game at the grassroots level and we have a wonderful relationship with Chevy that has our staff at Ripken Baseball conducting over one hundred clinics across the country this year. Baseball at all levels is in a very good place.
How does a sale help grow that aspect of the business?
It simply refocuses our energy and our resources. We want to continue to do more with our partners like Under Armour and others in the youth space and look for partners in other parts of the country who share our passion and might have interest in a Ripken experience complex in their community.
What advice do you have for those looking at a minor league investment?
Make sure that you have the expertise to properly run the team and make it profitable and look at it from a business perspective vs. simply a passion for baseball. Having the right team in place and realizing that this particular business feeds a passion is very important.
Are you proud of where you have positioned the franchise as a business?
Very much. Our new general manager Matt Slatus has experience at every level of professional baseball and the operation is both profitable and a significant part of our community.
Where should people look to see Ripken Baseball grow in the next five years?
We will see but growth is definitely on our minds.