Ripken proud of Myrtle Beach baseball complex’s growth

Matt Silfer for The Sun News.

As 50 youth baseball teams from around the country filed into the infield Sunday for the opening ceremony of a weeklong tournament at The Ripken Experience, the players’ families bunched in behind the backstop of the complex’s front field and clustered along the fences up either side while awaiting the main attraction of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Cal Ripken Jr., the baseball Hall of Famer and namesake of the facility, arrived quietly in a golf cart behind the swarm of little leaguers and waited for his turn as well.

Ripken, who had taken photos with each team earlier in the day, would soon walk out to applause and address the players and crowd for 12 minutes, sharing stories of sportsmanship lessons from his career and offering advice to the coaches before eventually wishing everybody well for the week.

That was the public side of Ripken’s latest appearance at his Myrtle Beach baseball complex, but Ripken Experience general manager Bobby Holland said the commitment the longtime Baltimore Orioles star continues to make behind the scenes is one of the principle reasons the facility and its vision are still growing entering its 10th summer in town.

“He travels more than anybody I know, but he comes down probably like a dozen times a year,” Holland had said Sunday morning in his office. “I get asked all the time, ‘How involved is he in operations and planning and so forth?’ And to answer the question, you can look right here. We’re already looking at plans while he’s here to maybe expand down the road and keep bringing the level of the facility up so it’s ahead of the competition. Every year we try to do something and Cal is real involved in the design and process and planning.”

Holland was gesturing to two large aerial photos of the sprawling complex that were set up inside his office this weekend to aid in discussing potential future plans and expansion.

Holland, in his eighth year as general manager, had just finished rattling off the numbers – telling how The Ripken Experience has grown from hosting 126 teams in its first year to likely around 500 this summer – when Ripken entered through a back door of the facility’s office building and joined the conversation.

Baseball’s “Ironman,” most famous for his streak of playing in a Major League-record 2,632 consecutive games, settled into the chair behind Holland’s desk and reflected back to the origin of this project more than a decade ago.

“Myrtle Beach chose us, I think, really,” Ripken said.

As he recalled, his group was trying to attract USA Baseball to put its headquarters in Aberdeen, Md., at the time and had discussed some design concepts during that process that spurred an offshoot idea in Myrtle Beach.

“We were in that bidding process [with USA Baseball] and got invited down to the design process so we had ideas and concepts spread around through a small group and Myrtle Beach was identified kind of as the perfect location,” Ripken said. “Great vacation destination, and teams want to go play baseball and it’s a baseball experience, but it’s a family vacation built around the baseball experience, too. So it’s all the other amenities, and Myrtle Beach arguably has all of them.”

According to Holland, The Ripken Experience was the product of an initial $26 million project that has since had $7 million of capital reinvested into it with two additional fields being completed to bring the complex’s total to nine, along with other upkeep and improvements.

The idea from the beginning, Ripken said, was to stand out.

“We wanted to give kids the feeling of what it feels like to play in the big leagues,” he said of the concept created by he and his team, including brother Billy Ripken, the executive vice president of Ripken Baseball.

“Billy and I realized that only very few of us get a chance to understand what Fenway feels like and Yankee Stadium feels like. So the whole idea was to give them an experience in those sorts of fields, where the dimensions are different and kind of challenge them. ...

“Too many times now, at least in my design opinion, they have quads and all the fields are exactly the same. It’s convenient, but we wanted to separate that and give a field its own identity and give kids their own experience in that environment. And so this was one of the early ones where we had a chance to really do that.”

The first Ripken Experience complex opened in Aberdeen and a third is set to debut next summer in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. As for the Myrtle Beach complex, the opening ceremony Sunday took place at “Griffith Field,” named after the former home of the Washington Senators. Other fields on the grounds include Navin Field and the Polo Grounds, continuing the historical ode to baseball’s early ballparks.

Ripken said he’ll put some time into the Tennessee location this summer as well to make sure everything is progressing as envisioned. He also has minor league baseball interests and travels for speaking engagements that keep him plenty busy nearly 14 years after his last game in the big leagues.

“The [Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation] has really grown with its efforts around the country so that’s pulling me around. I have corporate responsibilities, I’m out on the road giving speeches, so I’m moving around quite a bit,” he said. “You can’t just sit in one location. So this gives me great comfort that I can come in and peek at it every once in a while but know that on a daily basis it’s really good.”

Weekend visits like this one to Myrtle Beach and all of his other responsibilities – he’s also done television work with TBS during the baseball playoffs – have kept Ripken connected to baseball in his own way, but that crowded schedule also means he hasn’t worked in an official capacity inside a Major League organization since his retirement from the game in 2001.

And he admits that crosses his mind from time to time nowadays.

“I’ve thought about that. It’s what I learned most of my life being under my dad, who was in professional baseball, and then applying that at the big league level. What I know is mostly between the white lines so there’s always been a little urge to try to apply what you know,” he said. “I made the decision when I retired that I was going to change my lifestyle – the schedule of being on the road for 81 games and being home for 81 games – because my kids were 8 and 11 or 12 at the time so I wanted to spend time with them. Now they’re off on their own, so I think about it.”

“Why? Do you know a job opening for me?” he joked.

Ripken’s personality and stature as a beloved ambassador of the game are obvious reasons why he’d seem a logical fit in a Major League organization again, and he said he’s heard that suggestion from a few people inside the game lately.

“I’ve been flattered, there’s been a little bit of a flurry of activity asking me what my interest was in that level and so if I was going to do something I guess I better get my act together, but I’m perfectly content doing what I’m doing,” he said.

Asked a follow-up question regarding that “flurry of activity,” Ripken quickly caught himself.

“I know I shouldn’t have said that. I get an occasional inquiry about doing something with a pro team, a big league team,” he said, leaving it at that.

Maybe he will return to a Major League dugout or slide into a front office job in the future. Maybe not. Either way, he does seem to enjoy his current projects.

Talking for more than 20 minutes in Holland’s office in a quiet moment before his other responsibilities for the day – signing autographs, meeting with the youth teams, etc. – he ran through some of his concepts for the new Ripken Experience in Tennessee as well as some potential ideas he’s kept stored away still for the Myrtle Beach complex. All the while, he happily recounted stories from his playing days, including tales from his famed games-played streak that broke Lou Gehrig’s record almost 20 years ago to memories of his favorite ballparks.

“Those feelings that I’m discussing now, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with the experience here,” he said after reminiscing about pivotal series in Yankee Stadium and the mystique of road trips to Fenway Park.

Meanwhile, for the 50 teams visiting the Ripken Experience, representing 16 states, part of the draw this week was the man himself.

“I think for these kids to meet somebody of that stature is just an incredible once in a lifetime experience, so we definitely had teams switch from other weeks to jump into this week because they knew he was going to be here,” Holland said.

Ripken can’t be in Myrtle Beach every weekend, but Holland and The Ripken Experience’s organizers have a lineup of accomplished guests scheduled to make appearances at other tournaments throughout the summer, from recent stars like Johnny Damon and Roy Halladay to past legends like Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry.

Not only is the facility a popular destination for youth teams around the country to flock for summer competition, but the complex has become a home for high school and college teams to train before their seasons in the spring – including 352 high school and college baseball and softball teams this year, Holland said – and will also begin a partnership next year with former U.S. Olympian Jennie Finch to host two weeks of summer softball tournaments.

“Where we started and where it’s come is incredible. One of the things were looking at is what’s next,” Holland said. “I have in my vision to keep adding fields if there’s demand, which there seems to be. The vision is continuous.”

As Ripken added, there was no definitive end goal when the project began more than a decade ago, and the experiences thus far will shape any possible expansion into the future.

But so far, so good, he said.

“We’ll continue to look and innovate and learn from our functional knowledge,” Ripken said. “But we’re very proud of it.”

Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.

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