Saturday afternoon, everybody – players, fans, coaches, front-office officials – flocked behind the batting cage at Nationals Park like flint drawn to a magnet. Cal Ripken, one of the greatest players of all time, a legend among District fans who for the duration of his Orioles career had no team to root for in Washington, had walked from the tunnel next to third base dugout on to the field.
Ripken will broadcast this afternoon’s game for TBS, and he had arrived early in order to prepare. He shook hands with Ian Desmond and gave him a friendly punch to the chest. He chatted with Davey Johnson, his manager for two seasons in Baltimore. Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth – who played with Ripken during Orioles spring training as his career started and Ripken’s ended – walked over to talk. Owner Mark Lerner and General Manager Mike Rizzo joined the conversation.
Ripken has maintained his legendary and his connection to the game, but he has not worked in an official MLB capacity since he retired after the 2001 season. He has kept busy with his foundation, his Ripken Baseball brand and watching his children grow up.
This morning, Ripken sat in the press box above the Nationals Park diamond and discussed the Nationals, his life now and the “window” he sees to re-enter baseball – maybe with the Nationals – now that his children have grown. Here’s our conversation:
Having watched the Nationals recently, how can they turn things around?
That’s a big question. They got a really good team. The nucleus of the team is good. They’re having trouble scoring some runs. That’s the biggest shock to me, because they have the horses that can do it. But everyone once in a while, you get into a rut where when you don’t knock in a run from second base, it starts putting pressure on you, and then everybody starts to feel they got to do it. Maybe they try to do a little more in that situation, and they consequently do less. But I love their chances. Their pitching is as good as anybody. They keep you in ballgames and give you a chance to actually win. I haven’t watched them that much. I had to do a little bit of watching them, because we had to do a broadcast today. To get real familiar, I was watching some of the games. But it’s a good club.
Having played for Davey, how do you think he’ll handle this?
Davey’s best talent is the confidence that exudes from him. He knows what he’s doing. He manages the game really great. He manages the bullpen great. He keeps a looser environment where he doesn’t create pressure. He kind of puts the guys in position to succeed and lets them succeed. He understands the ups and downs of the game. He doesn’t overreact too much when things are going bad.
Other than TBS, what are you up to?
It’s interesting. In our business, we approved two kids’ tournament models. One is in Aberdeen that’s a weekend destination, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And then Myrtle Beach is a week-long family vacation. We spent the last 10 years developing those. We’re at a point where we think the model has been developed and we can actually put them in other parts of the country. We’re looking at a growth strategy, so that takes me around.
Our foundation in the name of my dad, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, is going gangbusters. I couldn’t be more proud of that, because we’re helping a lot of kids. First, we did it through our programming in the city. The tough kids that people write off nobody wants to help. We’re now building youth development ballparks to create these safe places for kids to use sports, to help them make right choices and help them learn about life.
I think we just completed our 14th youth development park. I think we have 60 other projects in some form of development right now. It’s pretty cool. It used to be, they would come to me for four or five things a year – ‘I need you on these particular days.’ Now, it’s considerably more. We’re opening parks. Getting parks started. Groundbreaking ceremonies. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Public-private partnerships. Raising money. It’s taken up quite a bit of time.
So it sounds like you’re busy.
That being said, would you be interested in getting back into baseball at all, either as an executive or on the field?
I’ve always tried to answer that question as openly as I can, and sometimes I create expectations or issues by saying it. But it’s what you know. When you’re around the baseball environment, when you’re here, it’s your peaceful place. It’s what you grew up knowing. There’s some side of me that would want to test what you know at the big league level, not know what that means, what job position.
There’s also, I made a choice when I left baseball. I wanted to be there for my kids during that time frame. A lot of my choices were made so I could have flexible time. If I came back to a big league scene, I wouldn’t have that flexible time. Now that my kids are starting to get out of the house – I still watch [son] Ryan play in and out of the collegiate league here – I could see maybe a window where I could consider coming back in some fashion. As long as I didn’t wait too long and nobody wants me.
Do you have a preference for being upstairs or being in uniform?
I mean, a lot of different positions appeal to me. The operations down on the field, you’re wearing a uniform. That’s what you did. That’s what you know. That’s what you saw. So that’s interesting to ponder for a minute. I always liked what [Rangers President] Nolan Ryan has accomplished and did. His model in many ways – his success in business and those sorts of things, I’ve looked at pretty closely. And he has a chance to impact the whole organization, from development to scouting to on-field, day-to-day stuff. I always thought that was an appealing position. But I haven’t given much more thought to that in recent years.
Have the Nationals ever approached you?
I’ve known the Lerner family for a while, and they’re great people. I sat with Mike Rizzo last night, mostly so I could pick his brain for our telecast. I needed to cram for what I was doing. But it’s interesting. From afar, they’ve done some nice baseball things. But the answer is no. But I like the ownership group. I like Mike a lot. I like what I see in the organization.
Because of that, is this a team you could you see yourself getting involved with?
I haven’t projected. And I can’t answer that in any way that you’re going to create problems for me. [Laughs.] I’m here for TBS. And I enjoy being around the baseball environment. I enjoy being around talking to them. I haven’t given serious thought to what would happen if I came back to the game. I speak in generalities. So I can’t speak in specifics, because I’m not there yet.
But it sounds like you’re enjoying what you’re doing now.
Yeah. It’s very gratifying to work with kids. It’s very gratifying to stay connected to baseball. The broadcast thing allows me to stay connected to baseball a little bit. It forces you to have the discipline to watch. I love the opportunity TBS gave me to work the playoffs. I was in the studio with Ernie [Johnson], and the pushed me out to the broadcast booth last year in a test – a high-risk test, I guess. I enjoyed that part. So I’m going to do the playoffs in the booth with Ron Darling and Ernie Johnson for this postseason.
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To me, It’s interesting what Ripken had to say about his affinity toward Rizzo and Nationals’ ownership. Also interesting was him not closing the door on an on-field position. The Nationals, of course, need a manager for next year, and one decent way to replace a towering figure like Johnson would be to bring in the most iconic player of his generation. (I’m sure the Lerners would be less than saddened at the collateral damage adding Ripken would do to the Orioles and Peter Angelos.)
Johnson, though, expressed some pessimism that Ripken would want to manage. “I think he would be good,” Johnson said. “He’s very smart.” But he also said Ripken, in his view, may not want to deal with the grinding daily schedule of managing for a 162-game season. Either way, just the thought of Ripken stepping in and taking over the Nationals is fascinating to consider, even if he may not be ready to discuss it.