Long before he was Major League Baseball’s “Iron Man,” Cal Ripken Jr. was a kid competing in youth tournaments. Playing on fields with fences was the exception, not the rule. Fifteen years removed from his Hall of Fame career, Ripken is now the driving force behind a series of facilities that any youth would dream to play at.
The Ripken Experience in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which opened in March in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, is the newest and perhaps greatest venue developed by the Baltimore Orioles legend and his younger brother, Bill, also a former pro baseball player. The original facilities in his hometown of Aberdeen, Maryland, and in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, have already had major economic benefits on their respective cities and helped promote playing baseball “The Ripken Way.”
That is only one reason Ripken, a 19-time All-Star and two-time American League most valuable player, is one of the sport’s MVPs when it comes to inspiring youth. He started Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation (named after his late father, a former minor league and big league coach in the Orioles organization), which is dedicated to redeveloping fields in underserved neighborhoods as a way to reach at-risk children. And in December 2015, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred named Ripken a special adviser on youth programs and outreach, giving the legend further influence in a field he is passionate about.
Connect Sports talked to Ripken about the business of building baseball complexes, how he hopes to promote the sport and what lessons kids can learn from his record for most consecutive games played.
What did you think of the Pigeon Forge facility when you were there on opening day?
I knew the complex was going to be good, but I didn’t know it was going to be that good. The building on the top—that’s your first impression—is like a ski lodge. It gets you excited, and then when you come out the back and see the whole complex, it will blow you away. It might be the best kids’ complex I’ve ever seen.
Were there any surprises?
When sitting in our design meetings, I couldn’t fully fathom the changes in elevation—there is symbolism in going up from the low minor leagues to the big leagues. I kept thinking: This is going to be steep. But as is turned out, the 50-ft. drop from the top didn’t feel like 50 feet at all. It was gradual and it allowed us to create unique sections for the fields.