- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

As Cal Ripken comes back from a broken rib and prepares to finally see some baseball action in Florida, thousands of youths all around the country are doing the same taking ground balls, batting practice and getting ready for another season in the sun.

It could be Ripken's last season. There are many more ahead for the kids playing the game in the league that now carries his name.

In case you haven't noticed it, signs are popping up around the Washington area advertising Cal Ripken Baseball, the youth baseball league that is part of Babe Ruth Baseball.

The signs are a good sign for those who fear rightly so that baseball is losing a generation of young fans in the battle for the hearts and minds of children that is going on in youth sports.

When the baby boomers were growing up, baseball was pretty much the only game. There was Little League baseball, and little else maybe a few midget football leagues, but no youth basketball, no lacrosse, no hockey, no skateboarding and, most importantly, no youth soccer, at least not to take seriously as competition.

The landscape has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. There is tremendous competition in youth sports. Soccer seems to rule in most communities, and baseball has been losing ground year after year.

In addition, the world of youth sports is under siege these days, with stories surfacing nearly daily about angry parents committing violent acts because their kid isn't playing enough, or they are upset with a referee's call.

The presence of Cal Ripken should be a welcome sight for everyone in youth sports, and for youth baseball. It gives the game a needed identity.

"It's important for major league baseball to grow the game," Ripken said. "I want to teach it and promote. There are more options for kids today, and it's a challenge to promote the sport, especially with a philosophy of fun at a young age."

Ripken began a partnership with Babe Ruth Baseball in the summer of 1999 as organization officials changed the name of its largest division, from 5 to 12 years old, to Cal Ripken Baseball. According to Babe Ruth officials, more than one million kids play in their leagues, and more than half of them are playing in Cal Ripken Baseball.

Last August they played the first Cal Ripken World Series in Mattoon, Ill., with 15 teams participating, including five international entries. The championship game was televised by Fox Sports Net. This year's game will be played in Vincennes, Ind., but the following year Ripken expects to host the World Series at the baseball academy he is building in Aberdeen, Md. The complex will include a miniature version of six current or former major league ballparks Camden Yards, Memorial Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Ebbets Field plus facilities to house more than 400 ballplayers and coaches for camps, tournaments and clinics. All of this will be built in several phases.

Ripken hopes to create a home for the game in Aberdeen. "The goal is to bring together the passions and desires of the sport in a facility that make the experience fun," he said. "That is what the Aberdeen project is all about. It's an opportunity to showcase baseball as being a great sport.

"I could have done without all that attention I received in 1995 [when I broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive game record]. I would have been just as happy not going through it. But I enjoyed being a spokesperson for baseball and talking about how much it means to me. Now I'm doing the same thing with all these projects."

It won't be a youth sports factory, though, and some parents who believe their sons are the second coming of Mickey Mantle (or Cal Ripken, for that matter) may be in for a surprise if they think they are going to come out of this with major league attitudes. "You see parents try to make a big league player out of their 9-year-old, and all that does is create negative pressure," Ripken said. "When you concentrate on results instead of learning the game, kids wind up washing out by the age of 12. The philosophy of the league is to learn the game and enjoy the spirit of competition, but for the experience of the game."

The Aberdeen project is not all fun and games, and not all benevolence. There are plans for a minor league stadium and franchise. Land next to the complex is slated to be used for a baseball-themed entertainment complex, with hotel, amusements and restaurants. It is every bit the $25 million business project, with the state kicking in $7 million, the city of Aberdeen $5 million, Harford County $2 million, and Ripken paying the estimated $11 million balance.

But at a time when major league ballplayers are complaining about making $10 million a year, a time when kids are wondering why the player they cheered one year is in another uniform the next, and a time when parents are pummeling umpires over blown calls, the fact that the most respected player in the game is building a place to teach the game means that there is hope for the game.

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