Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Cal Ripken and the Future of Youth Baseball

I had the opportunity to talk with Cal Ripken today about his participation in the longest game in professional baseball history -- a 33-inning marathon between the Rochester Red Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox in April 1981. After we discussed that game, I asked him about the way Cal Ripken Baseball is changing the landscape of youth ball.

Ripken Baseball started seven years ago when the Babe Ruth League offered to rename its Bambino division -- the 12-and-under bunch -- after the Iron Man of the Baltimore Orioles.

"I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to have an impact on the grassroots level of baseball," he said. "I don’t control the league. But I am not just involved in name alone either. I wanted to have an impact on the landscape of the game."

Ripken Baseball is the only community league growing its numbers every year -- about 6 or 7 percent a year, according to the future Hall of Famer. To keep the growth going, Ripken wants to offer not only world-class youth tournaments. He also wants to restore "real baseball" to the 12-and-under set.

Ripken Baseball announced this summer that it would expand its field size from 60 to 70 feet between the bases. It's a move that's been in discussion for years. "It takes a long time, but we're doing it and it's going to make a big difference," Ripken says.

The 70-foot bases -- the same dimensions used in PONY League competition for the same age group -- is "going to breathe some fresh air into the game." The bigger field not only accepts the reality that today's young athletes are bigger and stronger, but also acknowledges the growing importance of travel teams. Love them or hate them, travel teams will dominate youth baseball for the foreseeable future. The question is how community-based leagues adapt.

"In recent years, the numbers of kids playing ball after 12 or 13 have dwindled," Ripken told me. "And at the same time, there are more kids playing year round. We want to get more kids to extend the ages that they play baseball."

By playing on a bigger field, Ripken can draw many of the best travel-ball players to his program. At the same time, Ripken can continue to offer competition on 60-foot bases for less developed young athletes.

Baseball's standard 90-foot-base field fits the power and speed of most players from the teenage years all the way to the elites of the major leagues.

"There were some fundamental truths that were being violated," Ripken says. "Sixty feet [from the mound to the plate] gives you the right reaction time. And the bigger field gives you the right reaction time for fielders and baserunners too. Who’s the fastest player down the line now? It’s Ichiro [Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners]. But with 90-foot bases, there’s still enough reaction time for infielders to get Ichiro out.

"When those fundamental truths are violated, you change the game. When you have so many kids, you want to be all things to all people. There’s still a 60-foot path if you want to do that. But physically, there are a lot of kids these days who are ready and want to play real baseball and put people in motion, and move the mound back four feet."

During the recent Cal Ripken World Series, a couple of teams eliminated in early play played an exhibition game on 70-foot bases.

"We watched the offense became more of a spark, and they enjoyed the stealing and the game was natural to them. This is what real baseball is all about."

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