Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Little League's Toughest Rival -- Cal Ripken

In August 2005, just as the Little League World Series was starting play in Williamsport, a new baseball stadium opened its turnstiles for a baseball tournament involving twelve-year-old players from around the world.

The stadium was modeled after Camden Yards, the retro park of the Baltimore Orioles that brought about a revolution in stadium design. With brick walls forming the base for the stands behind home plate, the stadium evokes the urban parks of yesteryear that took odd shapes to fit the contours of the urban streetscape. The amenities found at major-league parks—a modern scoreboard, a press box, in-ground dugouts, bullpens, and lighting—the stadium is the anchor of a longterm strategy to change the world of youth baseball.

Cal Senior’s Yard in Aberdeen, Maryland, was designed to pull on the emotions of young baseball players and their families and coaches, just as much as Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport reaches the emotions of Little Leaguers. Built in honor of Cal Ripken Sr., the only man to manage two sons on the same team in major league history. The oldest of those sons, Cal Ripken Jr., became one of the greatest shortstops in modern times and the most durable player in the game’s history. From 1982 to 1998, he set an all-time record by playing in 2,632 consecutive games without a day off.

The stadium is just one of four planned for the Ripken Baseball Center in the town where Cal grew up as the son of a career minor-league coach. Other stadiums are modeled after Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Memorial Stadium (the Orioles’ park before moving to Camden Yards in 1991). The Ripken complex—planned to rise on a 110-acre site—will also include practice fields, training facilities, a baseball museum, and hotel, office, and shopping areas. Nearby, the Aberdeen IronBirds of the Class A New York-Penn League play at Ripken Stadium, one of the most celebrated minor-league parks in America.

In a very deliberate way, Ripken is leveraging the value of his name—made famous by his “iron man” consecutive games streak and the baseball family values embodied in his father Cal Sr. and mother Val. His book Play Baseball the Ripken Way, has become the standard operating manual for many coaches. Ripken also has produced instructional videos. The Ripken complex is home to summer baseball camps and tournaments—all of which will grow as the complex fills out in the coming years. And Ripken heads a consulting firm that offers guidance on stadium design and marketing strategy. Ripken also endorses a number of products and hosts a weekly talk show on XM Satellite Radio.

With the opening of Cal Senior’s Yard, Little League would have a rival with the same sense of drama and public appeal as Little League has nurtured for almost seven decades.

As the all stars from Ewa Beach advanced through the district, state, and regional tournaments and the Little League World Series, another Hawaii team was advancing to the championship of the Cal Ripken World Series.

On August 21, three pitchers from the Oahu team in Aberdeen combined for a one-hitter and a 1-0 victory over defending champion Mexico City to win the sixth annual CRWS. That Mexican team had gone three years without a loss.

The first five years of the tournament took place across the street at Ripken Stadium. The 2005 series was the inaugural of Cal Senior’s Yard.

The Ripken series was played in relative obscurity, compared with the Little League World Series. A Baltimore-area cable television station broadcast the game, but most of the country had no access to the game. Friends and families of the Oahu team had to arrange a special feed of the game in a local bar to watch their “other” local stars play for a championship.

But the Ripken series might be the wave of the future. About 1 million youngsters play in the babe Ruth League, which feeds teams into the Cal Ripken tournaments. And as the Ripken complex takes shape—and as awareness grows of the many brands of youth baseball—Ripken figures to become a major competitor for brand dominance.

The best way to understand the shape of youth baseball today is to consider the evolution of the soft drink market. Coca-Cola has always dominated the field, with Pepsi-Cola a constant runnerup. Coke’s brand appeal is so powerful that while taste tests regularly favor Pepsi, Coke wins when testers know the brand. But even as Coke and Pepsi have continued to dominate the soft-drink industry, more and more players have entered the market—not only other fizzy sodas with different flavors, but also energy drinks and fruit drinks and bottled water and more.

Little League remains the Coke of youth baseball—a recognizable brand name that evokes emotional attachments—but now has to compete with a broad range of organizations that offer brands that have become attractive to a growing majority of kids and their families. Pony League, Cal Ripken, Dixie, and AAU have become major players in different parts of the country, often eclipsing Little League. And tournaments across the country—from Cooperstown to Disney—have become the major events to showcase the best talent in the nation.

One of the “taste tests” for youth baseball in Hawaii took place at an invitational tournament in Wai-Kahala in June 2005.
The Cal Ripken team, known as the Oahu Stars, played the Little League stars, known as the Paina Boyz, just before the all-star teams were formall selected on June 15. Because of limited field space, the tournament set a time limit of one and a half hours for each game. At the end of that period, the Ripken team led the Little League team by a score of 3-2.

The umpire decided to keep the game going, and the Little Leaguers rallied in the seventh inning for two runs and a 4-3 victory. Layson Aliviado doubled, Kini Enos singled, Alaka’i Aglipay singled, Sheyne Baniaga popped out, and Vonn Fe’ao singled.

Gerald Oda, the manager of the Ripken squad, considered the loss to be one of the most positive events in the year for his players.

“We always stress to the kids that you can’t control a lot of things,” he says. “In baseball, you always deal with a lot of failure. So you need to focus on the things that you can control.

“The umpire decided to extend the game on his own judgment. The umpire said we were stalling. It was a heartbreaking game. We told our kids, ‘Look, there are some things that you just can’t control.’ We told them that [the Little Leaguers] earned it, that all we had to do was get the last three outs. But it’s tough. We had a closer getting whacked, but we didn’t want to takle him out because then we’d be accused of stalling. That game was a turning point. Anything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. It was a good experience because it taught the kids that there’s only one game they can control, and that’s the game they play.”

To win the Cal Ripken World Series, Oda’s team won seven games in Aberdeen. Five victories were close—over Willamette, Oregon (3-1); Calvert, Maryland (8-5); the Bronx, New York (6-3); Lexington, Kentucky (1-0); and Mexico City (1-0). Two games were blowouts—against Marblehead, Massachusetts (21-3) and Meridian, Mississippi (12-0).

The U.S. championship game against Lexington and Mexico City put the Cal Ripken game’s style on display. Two close, low-scoring games were decided by pitching and defense.

Cal Senior’s Yard has broader dimensions that Howard Lamade Stadium in Williamsport. The Yard measures 210 feet to the left-field wall, 260 feet to center field, and 205 feet to right field. Most Little League parks extend 205 feet to all fields.

The result is a more athletic brand of baseball. Hitters put the ball into play more often, and outfielders need to track down the ball and make good relays to the infield. And because hitting is less of a power game, so is pitching. So batters put the ball into play more often, putting greater demands on both fielders and baserunners.

In the U.S. final against Lexington, Kalani hit a home run in the top of the seventh to win the game for Hawaii, 1-0. Kewby Meyer pitched five innings of shutout ball—the first four innings and then the sixth inning—to get the win. But superior defense kept the game within reach. The Hawaiians threw one baserunner out at the plate and another at third base, squelching rallies by the team that won the Ripken championship in 2003.

In the title game against Mexico City, Kalani Lagoc-Crawford—whose mother sveres with the U.S. forces in Iraq—hit a double to win the game.

Gerald Oda’s attitude about winning and losing comes from his upbringing as a Buddhist. Economically, the Oda family always struggled. His father was a firefighter and his mother was a sales clerk. The family attended services at Soka Gakkai International, a branch of Buddhism devoted to the belief that all people have the capacity to attain enlightenment. That enlightenment comes from overcoming an inherent human toward hatred and violence.

If Buddhism provided a faith community for the Odas, baseball provided the social community. He played Little League and once dreamed of playing in Williamsport.

Oda remains a dedicated Buddhist. When he rises in the morning, he prays at an altar in his home. Now thirty-seven years old, Oda makes his living investigating fraudulent injury claims for Geico, a national insurance company. As a student at the University of Hawaii, he studied political science. But baseball remains his passion. He has been coaching since he was a teenager.

Oda once coached older kids, but decided that the twelve-and-under group was best for him. “It’s good for the soul,” he says.

A lifelong bachelor, Oda has something of a slimmed-down Buddha’s appearance. His face is round and open. As his hairline rises, he has not taken on the usually signs of tension—deep lines in the face, tightness near the eyes and mouth. He gives off an aura of calm and acceptance.

“I don’t do ever say anything about Buddhism to the kids,” he says. “That’s not my role. But I am always thinking about how to use my understanding of Buddhism to teach the kids better, to give them perspective. They need direction, and sometimes a coach can team them things that a father can’t teach them.”

He is asked what pieces of wisdom he applies to his own life, on and off the field. He repeats a few examples.

“Winter always turns into spring.”

“You can change poison into medicine.”

“At a crucial moment, the foolish will often forget what they have promised.”

What Oda promises—and works to redeem—is to teach his players to work hard, work together, try to win, but accept everything that they cannot control.

He teaches his kids not to argue with umpires.

He teaches them that fame passes quickly, and that the effort put into the game is more valuable anyway.

He teaches them that other teams’ success is not to be envied.

When the Little League all stars returned to Hawaii to heroes welcomes—with parades, TV commercials, gifts, autograph parties, and free outings at amusement parks and resorts—Oda holds no envy.

In fact, Hawaii had six youth baseball teams advance to World Series tournaments in 2005. Beside the Cal Ripken and Little League twelve-and-under teams, the success stories included the Mililani PONY thirteen-and-under team, the Pearl City Little League Juniors Division (age thirteen and fourteen), the Oahu Babe Ruth Leaguers (age thirtheen through fifteen), and the Pearl City Little League Seniors (age fifteen and sixteen).

“Layton winning the Little League was the best thing that happened to Little League on the islands,” he says of Layton Aliviado, the manager of the West Oahu Little League all stars. “And it’s because of Layton’s team that we got any exposure at all for what we did. If we were on ABC, people would be just as proud of our kids. I wish people in the state knew how good our kids are. But we just tell them that fame is a fleeting thing. The fact that we played and won is what matters, not the fame.”

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