By Barry Janoff
September 22, 2014: Cal Ripken Jr. last played a MLB game in 2001, but he is still very much part of the baseball landscape.
He is the president and CEO of Cal Ripken Baseball (where his brother, Bill, also is a top executive), which oversees youth baseball leagues, the Cal Ripken World Series, youth baseball camps and other baseball activations.
He heads up ownership groups for Minor League Baseball teams including the Single-A Aberdeen (MD) IronBirds, which plays in Ripken Stadium, part of the Ripken Baseball Aberdeen Complex.
Ripken played his entire MLB career with the Baltimore Orioles, 1981-2001. His stats include being a 19-time All-Star, two-time AL MVP, 1983 World Series champion, .276 batting average, 3,184 hits, 431 home runs and 1,695 RBI. The most enduring legacy: Breaking Lou Gehrig's record by playing in 2,632 consecutive games.
Ripken was inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 on his first ballot with 98.53% of the vote. Among other honors, his No. 8 was retired by the Orioles and he is a member MLB All-Century Team.
Ripken had numerous marketing deals during his playing days, and the ones he maintains now are centered around baseball. A campaign this past season with Kellogg's, "Never Mss a Game," had him in a lead role encouraging fans to share stories regarding the limits to which they went to attend a game, with his image on millions of company products alongside a sweepstakes offering tickets to games in 2015.
As part of his deal with Under Armour, the Baltimore-based sports gear and footwear company provides the uniforms for the IronBirds and youth teams participating in the Cal Ripken World Series, sponsors all the youth tournaments at the Ripken facilities and gets Ripken's services as a spokesman.
He also has had an on-going mutual-admiration relationship with Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, who, like Ripken in 2001, is now finishing the final season of his MLB career. In addition to playing against each other early in Jeter's career, both were shortstops and both have respect not just for the game but for the history of the one team each played for during their Hall of Fame and future Hall of Fame careers, respectively.
Earlier this month, Ripken was on the field in Yankee Stadium, alongside Michael Jordan, for a pre-game ceremony on Derek Jeter Day on Sept. 7.
Since 2007, Ripken has been a commentator and analyst for Turner Sports' MLB coverage on TBS. This coming post-season, he will be part of the broadcast crew (pictured above with Ron Darling and Ernie Johnson) for TBS' exclusive coverage of the American League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser (Sept. 30), the AL Division Series (beginning Oct. 2) and the AL Championship Series (TBD).
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Ripken in the MLB FanCave in New York during a media event for TBS' coverage of the 2014 MLB post-season.
NYSportsJournalism.com: You've been through a lot of evolutions of baseball, including a time that when October came, the sports world, fans and marketers pretty much knew that MLB post-season and the World Series ruled. Given that the NFL and other events have encroached into baseball territory, is MLB challenged to attract casual and non-fans?
Cal Ripken Jr.: Baseball is always challenged to get more and more people interested in the game. The playoffs are the time to be interested in the game. The hard-core fans will always watch; they will always be there. But what happens is that the interesting stories around the country becoming interesting and compelling to those people beyond the core fans. If a team is fighting for a wild card and playoff spot, the interest in that market tends to grow. There's a buzz. People in a city who are not necessarily baseball fans get behind their team, watch the games, want to be at the ball park. If the media is talking about the Kansas City Royals or the Pittsburgh Pirates all the time, that draws in the casual audience. And then that carries over into the playoffs.
NYSJ: How important are the so-called smaller markets when it comes to post-season viewership and national marketing interest?
CR: The success of parity in baseball is important. You won't always have New York or Boston in the post-season. Maybe for the networks you want those big-market teams because it tends to draw in bigger ratings. But if you want to attract casual and even non-baseball fans, from a baseball and a marketing standpoint, you want to have smaller markets and under-dog teams to start getting more attention for the game.
NYSJ: Does that hold true with specific players, as well, where casual fans will watch a game if a certain hitter or pitcher is involved, even if he is not on their home team?
CR: Certainly. Even on the East Coast, where it is harder to watch a game on the West Coast, if Clayton Kershaw is pitching for the [Los Angeles] Dodgers, people want to tune in. They want to watch when he is pitching. Last year, for me, it was Pittsburgh. I couldn't believe what was happening. It seemed as if they were over the hump, then it was disappointing that they didn't finish well, and then they finished with their first winning season and made the playoffs for the first time in something like 20 years (1992). There was so much energy in PNC Park when we went in there to cover the Wild Card game (against the Cincinnati Reds). It was so much fun to be there. Andrew McCutchen was named National League MVP and people wanted to watch him. So that's what helps to get casual fans interested.
NYSJ: So there isn't really a formula for baseball to expand its hard-core fan base?
CR: I don't have the answers as to how baseball gets everybody to watch right now during the post-season. But the excitement of the playoffs, the Wild Card, the excitement of a Game 7, draws a lot of attention to the game. I work closely with kids and youth baseball and they are very enthusiastic about the game. Enhancing youth baseball and working to keep those kids in the game would make a lot of sense for [MLB] from a lot of aspects.
NYSJ: What are your thoughts regarding social media and the way athletes and teams use it?
CR: It's great and dangerous at the same time. It's great in that it's where all the young people are congregating and communicating, especially if you want to get a message out. But it does get tough if players and teams need to speak to each other without the conversation going public. If you have a players-only meeting, for example, or a meeting in the club house if things aren't going well, that should stay in there. But now there's a tendency for those conversations to go mainstream. In the end, it's content that people are really interested in. They want to be in-the-know, they want it now, they want that accessibility. From a baseball standpoint, the game and the players can't operate any differently than the way the world exists. But players and teams have to manage that.
NYSJ: It seems as if a lot of companies, when seeking spokespersons from sports, are going with players who have retired and can no longer damage their image on the field: Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Charles Barkley, Pelé, Shaquille O'Neal, among others. When you retired, did you find that more companies were coming to you with offers?
CR: I've never really thought about it in that way. I understand that thinking. But you also have to look at it from the player's side: What if something happens to the company itself? Does that reflect bad on you? So there are risks on both sides. Someone like Joe Montana will always be highly valued. But not every player who retires can maintain value in their name, and not every player who retires wants to be involved in marketing and corporate relationships. I'm still doing endorsements and have corporate relationships, so people still see the value in what I bring to an alliance.
NYSJ: How important has Ripken Baseball become in reaching kids and introducing baseball to youngsters and others who might not become involved with the game, as well as to your overall business strategy?
CR: It really is about presenting the game of baseball and getting kids into it in the right way. And it is a lot of fun. There are many aspects to it. Under Armour has been a great partner and a great leader in helping to support and build what we are doing. We have a tournament in Aberdeen (Maryland) and Myrtle Beach (SC), we have the Cal Ripken World Series (held in August in the Ripken Experience Aberdeen Powered by Under Armour), instructional videos, camps and other ways to reach kids and coaches. We're looking to expand on that so that even more kids and parents can become involved.
NYSJ: Derek Jeter (seen in Gatorade's "Made in New York" spot) right now is going through something you experienced in 2001, your last season in MLB. How has he been handling it?
CR: He's handled it very well. I'm not sure he wants to be in that type of spotlight. He plays for the team, plays for the game, and I see him being a bit uncomfortable with what has become his 'Farewell Tour.' The season is not turning out the way he would want it to go for the Yankees, so that is affecting him. And from a personal point of view, as much as he doesn't show his emotions, [coming to the end of your career] still affects you whether you're ready for it or not.
NYSJ: What do you see for him moving forward?
CR: After baseball, he can do whatever he wants. It's just deciding what he wants to do. The challenge for me personally was an abundance of opportunities. You have to pick and choose what you want to do and perhaps focus on one area over another. For me, I learned some things by trial and error. You can't chase everything. In order to be good at what you want to do, you have to focus your time, efforts and attention.
NYSJ: What do you think his legacy will be?
CR: He was one of the greatest players, and he had a major impact on the way people think about baseball in New York, right up there with [Mickey] Mantle, [Yogi] Berra, and the another greats who have worn a Yankees uniform.
NYSJ: How are you expecting the games to play out this post-season?
CR: Geographically, it would be great to say it's going to be an East Coast match-up with Baltimore and the [Washington] Nationals. You can also make another case for the West Coast, [Los Angeles] Angels and the Dodgers. It's hard. The 162-game schedule proves which is the best team in the league in that particular year. The best teams in the playoffs are the ones that get a hot pitcher, that play well and execute well in that shorter time frame. So it's difficult to say.