Ripken means business

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.

A person can be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame under several categories — player, manager, umpire, executive and pioneer.

Cal Ripken Jr. will be inducted into the Hall of Fame tomorrow as a player, along with Tony Gwynn. There is no category for player-businessman, but if there were, Ripken would be worthy of induction in that category, too. Few retired players have created a more impressive baseball business enterprise than Ripken since he retired from the Baltimore Orioles in 2001 after 21 seasons.

“He’s got a little empire out there, with the IronBirds and all that,” former Orioles manager Earl Weaver said of the minor league teams that Ripken Baseball owns and operates.

Yes, quite a little empire, all built on the Ripken brand name.

There are the IronBirds, the short-season Class A club in Aberdeen that plays at Ripken Stadium, the ballpark just off Interstate 95 built in partnership with state and local government.

The IronBirds sell out every game in the 6,300-seat ballpark and have a season-ticket waiting list of nearly 2,000. Their merchandise is among the best-selling in minor league baseball.

The ballpark sits in the Ripken Center, part of a youth baseball complex that includes the Ripken Baseball Academy, where clinics attract young players from all over the country. Next door stands a new Courtyard by Marriott hotel, a scaled-down version of the B&O; Warehouse at Camden Yards. Ripken Stadium also holds the Cal Ripken World Series in August, the championship for the 10- to 12-year-old division of Babe Ruth Baseball.

Ripken Baseball also owns another minor league club, the Augusta (Ga.) GreenJackets of the Class A South Atlantic League. Then there is Ripken Management and Design, a company that advises municipalities, ownership groups and investors on the development of minor league facilities.

The final part of Ripken Baseball is Ironclad Authentics, a memorabilia company that sells autographed items from a host of current and former major leaguers who have signed on as clients.

Ironclad Authentics is sort of an ironic business venture: Perhaps no one in all of baseball ever passed up as much money by signing autographs for free than Ripken. If someone in Baltimore didn’t have a baseball signed by Ripken when he was playing, they weren’t trying.

Then there are the speaking engagements — Ripken is one of the most sought-after motivational speakers on the corporate circuit — and the endorsements. Add it all up, and you have a guy who still likes to play every day, except now the game is in boardrooms.

“There are a lot of athletes who play their respective sport and then want to kick back, play golf and live a more leisurely life,” Ripken said. “I respect that, but that is not how I am built, and I’m really enjoying this next phase of my life.”

His business success is in part based on the Ripken name and the positive image that he built over his playing career. That only will grow in value after tomorrow’s induction ceremony here in Cooperstown, when he officially becomes Cal Ripken Jr., Hall of Famer.

The one business venture, though, that has eluded him is one he may never realize: running a major league organization. Ripken has made it clear he would like to use his ideas and philosophies to shape an operation not as a general manager, but as an owner.

“Ultimately, my dream is to help shape a major league baseball organization from top to bottom,” Ripken said. “If that opportunity ever presents itself, it’s one I’ll look long and hard at.”

But there are only two realistic choices — the Nationals and the Orioles — available for Ripken unless he’s willing to leave the Baltimore-Washington area, which is unlikely, given his family and business ties here.

There was much speculation that Ripken would indeed wind up part of an ownership group in Washington. He did have talks with several of the groups seeking to buy the team, including the current owners, the Lerner family. But those discussions never translated into a place in the current Nationals ownership.

The obvious choice for Ripken would be the Orioles.

A group of investors reportedly would back Ripken in purchasing the Orioles, but the chances of that happening are slim: It is unlikely Peter Angelos will sell the team, and his two sons, John and Louis, have become more prominent again in the organization. Any sale became more complicated with the creation of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. Does Angelos sell just the Orioles and keep the network? Not likely. Is it a package deal? Then it may be about a $700 million transaction.

If Ripken somehow does manage to own the Orioles and turn around what is one of the worst-managed organizations in professional sports, they very well might have to open up a new wing for Ripken in Cooperstown and hold another induction ceremony.

Fixing the Orioles would be a Hall of Fame achievement in the business of baseball.

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