The Boyertown Area Times
A life in baseball
For Billy Ripken, the brother of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., family and baseball have always been at the forefront of life
On the night of his major league debut in 1987, a 22-year old Billy Ripken stood alongside his brother Cal Ripken Jr. during the national anthem at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.
Both brothers were in the lineup for a game against Minnesota, a lineup that was set by their father, Orioles manager Cal Ripken Sr., marking the first time in Major League history that a manager coached his two sons on the same team.
“It’s one of my favorite memories when I think about my career,” Billy Ripken said. “I didn’t have to have necessarily all these other moments out there in the individual world, because that one was pretty special to share with the family.”
The intersection of baseball and family has been present throughout Billy Ripken’s life, which he spoke about prior to being one of the speakers at the 61st annual Reading Hot Stovers Banquet on Thursday at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Reading.
“The three of us were entrenched in something,” Ripken said about his family’s relationship with baseball. “It’s what we did for a living.”
A native of Havre de Grace, Md., Ripken’s debut on July 11, 1987, was the start of a 12-year major league career during which he played for four teams, primarily as a second baseman. He spent the majority of his career with Baltimore, playing for the O’s from 1987-92 and again in 1996. He also played for Cleveland, Texas and Detroit.
“It’s hard enough to get to the big leagues, (but) it’s harder to stay in the big leagues,” Ripken said. “I think I spent every day of my big league career fighting in that world of — I got to keep my job.”
Cal Ripken Sr. served as Baltimore’s manager in 1987 and for the first six games of 1988 before he was fired. He was the Orioles’ third base coach from 1989-92, a position that he also held before he was promoted to manager.
“Dad was probably better of a teacher than anybody I’ve ever come across as far as the baseball world,” Billy Ripken said. “He didn’t sugarcoat things.”
Billy Ripken played alongside his brother during all seven of the seasons he played in Baltimore. Ripken Jr., a first-ballot Hall of Fame shortstop, recorded 3,184 hits and played in a major league-record 2,632 consecutive games during his 21-year career as baseball’s “Iron Man.”
“He didn’t necessarily treat (Cal) Jr. and I the same way,” Billy Ripken said about his father. “He was real. He was very straightforward with his views and his thoughts about me individually and (Cal) Jr. individually.”
While he worked for the Orioles, Ripken Sr. operated the Ripken Baseball School, a youth baseball summer camp at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. Following Ripken Sr.’s death in 1999, Billy and Cal Jr. decided to establish an organization called Ripken Baseball, meant to not only honor their father, but to also continue the Ripken family’s commitment to youth baseball.
“When we really went full bore into Ripken Baseball, we were trying to figure out what’s one way you could honor your father moving forward,” Billy Ripken said. “We felt Dad, as a baseball man, was as good as it got. If we could establish something in a baseball type-way that we can continually give him tribute, then we’re really willing to do that.”
Founded in 2001, Ripken Baseball operates youth baseball and softball camps, clinics and tournaments all over the United States. It also operates the Cal Ripken Collegiate Summer League for college baseball players, among other ventures.
“It’s not about trying to breed a big-league player,” Ripken said. “A lot of these places that we go are vacation-type destinations, so what better place to mix in a little bit of baseball and have a good time with the family.”
The Ripken brothers also own the Aberdeen IronBirds, Baltimore’s High-A minor league affiliate in Aberdeen, Md. The Ripkens moved the team from Utica, N.Y., to Aberdeen shortly after purchasing the franchise, and the team played its first season in Aberdeen in 2002.
“I look back at my days in the minor leagues, they were all good to me,” Billy Ripken said. “It helped shape me.”
Ripken never played in Reading, as he spent his time in Double-A with the Charlotte Orioles of the Southern League. He spent his first full year with Charlotte in 1986, one year after the team’s stadium burned down.
“I think part of what I had to go through in the minor leagues helped me get to the big leagues,” Ripken said. “I look back at 1986 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and think it was one of the best times I ever had.”
Major changes have swept over the minors in recent years, including restructured leagues and affiliation agreements, multi-million dollar stadium upgrades and the requirement that teams must provide housing for their players.
While Ripken said he believes no player should live in poverty and playing surfaces should be in the best condition possible, he also said the long bus rides and tough conditions in the minor leagues taught him a lot about himself, and were an important step in his path to the majors.
“I remember some good things about the minor leagues in maybe (some) not-so-good facilities,” Ripken said. “There’s a realness to that. You can’t expect everything to be gift-wrapped for you and just handed to you. You have to go get it, and I think that’s what the minor leagues helped me understand.”
In addition to his work with Ripken Baseball and the Aberdeen IronBirds, Ripken serves as a studio analyst for MLB Network. He has been with the network since its inception in 2009.
“I love being able to see something on TV — game-wise — and be able to possibly bring some insight to people sitting at home,” Ripken said. “I think I see the game in a way that maybe somebody else doesn’t see it.”
Ripken said he never saw himself as a sports broadcaster during his playing days, but was selected as a potential candidate for
the network years before it began. While introducing his brother at the March of Dimes Man of the Year Award luncheon in New York, Ripken impressed Tony Petitti, who was in attendance and would go on to be the first president of the network.
“I was pretty good at the podium that day, apparently,” Ripken said. “I never thought of myself in that role. It just kind of happened, and now I’m pretty glad it did.”
With several rule changes, an aging fanbase and a focus on pace of play, the evolution of the MLB has been a major topic of conversation surrounding baseball as it moves deeper into the 21st century. However, Ripken said he believes the sport is in a healthy position.
“Most of us 58-year-old baseball fans think there’s not nearly as much wrong with the game as other people say there is,” Ripken said. “I’m still of the mindset that there’s so much good in baseball right now — there’s so many good things to see in baseball — that if you actually get a little bit more educated on the actual game of baseball and what people are doing on the field, that actually might help you enjoy the game.”