Cal Ripken, Jr. inspired many with his Hall of Fame baseball career. The 2-time AL MVP and 19-time All-Star shared some of his thoughts on being a role model and the current battle for the playoffs going on in the AL East. Besides his run as baseball's Iron Man, Ripken is known for his work with the youth and as a broadcaster with TBS after retirement. We spoke with Cal about everything from unbreakable records to his opinion on the Baltimore Orioles this season.
Interview by Rafael Canton (@RafelitoC7)
How did you and your foundation partner up with Transitions Optical?
I think the first start was that I had need for glasses and my eye doctor said that "Transitions would be a good match for you." I work in an inside environment and also go outside with kids. The lens that I like is the vantage lens because I need some protection from the light in my eyes when I go outside and it really gives me what I need. When I come inside I don’t even think about it because it changes automatically for me.
After I had a need for my eyes, I started talking to Transitions Optical and I guess I’m the sports guy to help deliver that message. It’s an easy endorsement because I need it, it works really well for me, and it’s an easy message to give. But the partnership has kind of expanded a little bit in the direction of helping kids. We help kids all the time through our foundation. We get in front of them, use baseball to actually get their attention and give them some life messages that dad used to give us and we’re able to help kids get their eyes checked.
We’ve taken a mobile truck in Tampa and Houston now, and the kids come on board and get their eyes checked right there on the spot. If they need glasses, they get to pick out glasses and the glasses are built for them right there. It makes you feel really good because the statistic that blew me away was that one out of every four kids have some sort of issue with their eyes that affects their learning. I know that in a brief period of time when my eyes started to go bad, I started changing my habits in a survival mode.
I didn’t look at my financial stuff so close because I couldn’t see it, so I figured that I would look at it later on. I dodged whatever magazines or books that were there and started reading on my iPad. So I started to think that if a kid has a learning problem because of their eyes, what are they doing to avoid that. Once I got glasses, it all straightened out again. The simple thought of giving kids the glasses that they need opens up the world for them and allows them to learn and then gives them a chance. I really appreciate Transitions Optical for the philanthropic view and seeing the partnership where we can go out and help kids in many different ways.
You have what is considered an unbreakable record in sports as the Iron Man of Baseball. What are your top five unbreakable records in sports?
I think the 56-game hitting streak is going to be safe because nowadays with the media. Someone starts to get a hitting streak of 20 games or even 15 games, and now that player has to start answering questions about the streak and hitters don’t like to talk about getting hits. They just want it to happen and put it out of their mind. They don’t want to be reminded that they have a hitting streak.
We saw Paul Molitor and Pete Rose get to 39 and 44 games of their streak, repsectively. The coverage was so intense and they still had 15-16 more games to get to that point, so I think that’s a very tough one to break.
What about Pete Rose’s career hits record?
I think somebody can approach that. I thought Derek Jeter might've until the recent injury problems. He was quick to 2,000 and 3,000 and had a lot left in his tank. He still does so he could approach 4,000. It is a stretch because you have to have a long career and be great throughout your career. I see somebody approaching that but for now I think that’s pretty safe.
The 2,632 consecutive games streak is interesting. I don’t look at it from inside my body as an unbreakable record because I did it and you’re bound to think that if I did it, certainly somebody else can do it. But, it would have to take the right mindset and the right player that was deserving of being in that lineup and it would take a lot of time. It’s going to be a tough one to break but it’s not unbreakable.
It takes a lot of consistency to play all of those games consecutively. Did you ever any situation where you were close to not playing during the streak where maybe you had a nagging injury?
That’s the psychological and mental part about playing every day. Some people can’t play too far below 100% and it’s in their mind more so than their own body. To me, I had pretty good success not being 100% and I thought sometimes some nagging injuries actually helped me stay within myself.
There were a lot of injuries and you’re determining if they’re nagging injuries or more serious and deserve some time. I strained my knee really bad in a brawl (1993) against the Seattle Mariners and I couldn’t walk on it the next day and I thought for sure I wouldn’t be able to play. Somehow, someway, I had pretty good healing powers, got treatment, and I tested it in a way in the cage to see if I could play.
Thank goodness I gave it a try because the very first play, I had to plant my right foot which was the knee that was hurt on a ball in the hole. I thought if it holds then I can keep playing, and if it doesn’t I won’t. So in the middle of that play, it held and I threw the guy out at first base and it hurt, but I knew that I could get through that.
That’s the psychological and mental part about playing every day. Some people can’t play too far below 100% and it’s in their mind more so than their own body. To me, I had pretty good success not being 100% and I thought sometimes some nagging injuries actually helped me stay within myself. Once you get to a point where you acknowledge you can play, and you’re a little beaten up, then it’s just a matter of doing it.
What do you think about the Baltimore Orioles this season?
I love the Baltimore Orioles. Buck Showalter’s done a fantastic job. I think Andy MacPhail probably deserves a lot of the credit for aligning a rebuilding process and Dan Duquette’s come in and made some nice changes but I think Buck as the baseball guy has helped assemble that team.
We have a lot of All-Stars on that team. Buck’s managed the bullpen really well which has been one of his greatest strengths. He’s found some more depth in his starting staff. I still think he’s positioning and trying to get everyone healthy, but he’s a really good baseball guy. He’s been successful in multiple places and he’s got the Orioles very competitive, and they have a good chance to make the playoffs.
The AL East has been really competitive this year with four teams over .500 and competing for playoff spots. As a player who played in the AL East, what was it like competing with such a tough division schedule annually and trying to make the playoffs?
It feels a little unfair. First of all, it’s a great problem to have. You’re competing for a playoff spot every year which means that you’re in the mix. The American League East from an analytical standpoint, is tough because you can make a case for any one of those five teams to win the division.
Toronto had a lot of momentum and interest because of the changes they made in the offseason thinking that those transactions would push them to the top of the American League East. They got off to a slow start. Everyone thought the Orioles would be just a one-year flash, but the Orioles have jumped out and pushed themselves. The Yankees have been amazing because they have had so many injuries to the nucleus of that staff but yet they’ve kept themselves right in the mix.
The Red Sox righted themselves from being at the bottom last year, and then we forget to mention Tampa Bay and all Tampa Bay does is have the best pitching and they keep coming at you and they find ways to score runs, win games, and the strength of their pitching will propel them to an opportunity. So it’s going to be fun to watch as it gets down the stretch, but it almost seems unfair that these teams have to play against each other so much because they’re competing for the Wildcard. It seems like their path is a little bit harder than the rest of the division.
That could change in any one year, but when you’re going for that Wildcard spot, you’re not only competing with the guys in your division, you’re competing with the rest of the American League.
You do a lot of work and coaching with kids at a young age. Do you ever see yourself moving up and coaching in the big leagues?
I think about that quite a bit. We’ve spent time in the youth market building a couple of businesses and tournament destinations that are good working models that we could put someplace else. We’re in a period of looking at that growth strategy. We’ve handed out content for instructional camps through the website and any way to help kids become better.
When you look at what your skills are and where they’re at, to me it’s at the big league level. I’ve always thought that I had value at the big league level, and my ideal impact that I would like to have would be scouting on development in the minor leagues and the day-to-day in the big leagues part.
I don’t know if I’ll be back in the big leagues or not. I still keep that in the back of my head and I trust the process and we’ll see what happens.
Has the pro game changed a lot since you retired?
It’s still 90-feet in between bases and still a 60-foot distance between home and the mound. Specialization of your bullpen has gotten a little better. Data’s being used more for alignment and shifting on defense. They’re using that information that wasn’t available to us as readily. I still think it’s the same game. The fundamentals are all still the same. The game continues to evolve in many ways and specialization of the bullpen is probably one of the bigger changes that’s happened since I left.
In your last year, you celebrated your career with a farewell tour. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is doing something similar this year. Was it hard to keep that mental and competitive edge going when you’re celebrating your career while having to win games?
I’m glad that I announced my retirement early in that year in June. Not for the reason of getting a farewell tour, but I wanted to be in a position to answer the question ‘what are you doing next?” I wanted to be able to talk about our kids initiatives so that was my strategy.
The byproduct of that was that you went into every city for the last time and you got to say goodbye and they got to say goodbye to you. Sometimes they did it in formal ceremonies which made you feel good, and you’re right, in order to maintain your absolute best focus, you can’t have any sort of distractions. If you’re looking at the big picture of your career that can be considered as a distraction and it was emotional all the way down the stretch.
You start to wear yourself out and in my particular case, 9/11 happened. When 9/11 happened, it changed your perspective all the way around. We played a role in some of the healing process and we went into New York and Boston which were the last two cities that I went to and I remember meeting some of the kids that had lost their dads. They brought the kids out to the ballpark and some of them were the same age as my kids. I kept thinking about how that kid is going to grow up without the influence of a dad. I think emotionally and mentally that whole process of saying goodbye and thank you had gotten to the point where I was just mush at the end of the year.
Mariano seems to be enjoying it and I encouraged him to let go and enjoy the process. Don’t try to control it so much. It is what it is, but I’ll tell you what, he’s performing like he was in his prime and I told him he can still change his mind. I think this is how he envisions saying goodbye and he’s been a marvel to watch.
Charles Barkley will always be known for uttering the phrase “I am not a role model.” What do you think about the responsibilities of a pro athlete as a role model?
I think that was a marketing campaign. It got a lot of attention that way. Charles is a great analyst. I’ve gotten a chance to meet him, known him and talk to him and I think he’s a good thinker that way. If you really examine that statement, I think that all of our role models are the people that are closest to us and we look to our families to provide that.
I’d say my dad was my role model. My mom was my role model as well. Then there are other people in your life that you can pick from. A lot of times how I felt about professional athletes was that I looked up to them, watched them and modeled my behavior after them. I don’t necessarily think that it’s a foregone conclusion that athletes should be a role model, but it’s an opportunity to influence in a positive way if you so desire. To me, it’s understanding that you can influence the younger generation and then it’s up to you. Either you want to do it or you don’t want to do it.
I saw that as an opportunity and still see that as an opportunity in your life to affect people positively. All baseball and sports does is give you that platform, but I don’t think it should be an obligation.
What was it like playing with your brother and being managed by your father at the same time?
It was very normal for us because we grew up in a professional family. My dad was in professional baseball for my first fourteen years. He happened to be in the minor leagues and he came to the big leagues. We played baseball and all of a sudden were being considered for professional baseball, then we were in professional baseball and we all were on the same team.
If you start to look at it that way, there’s no favoritism, you have to earn your way all the way through it. It’s extremely rare that that would happen the way it would happen. We accepted it as just our norm. Until we didn’t have it anymore we didn’t realize how special it was. My advice to most people is, especially when you’re working with family, take a moment to understand how great that is.
I had two people in a room that I could trust absolutely for any issue, any problem, or any direction I might want to have. We had a couple choices to go. I feel lucky to have had that opportunity. Baseball took dad away from me in many ways as a baseball player and then reunited us in the big leagues in ways that few dads and sons get a chance to. We as grown men got a chance to extend our relationship and our friendship in baseball which was really cool.