Commissioner praises Hall of Famer's work in growing the game
By Paul Hagen
ABERDEEN, Md. -- When Cal Ripken Jr. retired in 2001 after a Hall of Fame career, he wanted to do whatever he could to keep children interested in baseball.
When Rob Manfred became the 10th Commissioner of Major League Baseball in January, he made it clear that youth participation would be one of his priorities.
Those interests aligned Thursday when Manfred became the first Commissioner to visit the Cal Ripken World Series at the Ripken Experience Aberdeen Powered by Under Armour youth baseball complex. Manfred was given a tour of the facility and threw out the first pitch before Game 1 of the U.S. semifinals.
"I know that one of the major initiatives in the Commissioner's Office is to grow the game, present the game to the kids," Ripken said. "I had the same sort of passion when I retired from the game. I wanted to go out and do this, promote the game and present the game to the kids -- to get them more interested and grow the game and get more people involved. So I couldn't be more thrilled that the Commissioner's Office is taking that stand now."
Manfred spoke at length about some of MLB's efforts.
"I think of it as a pyramid," he said. "At the base of the pyramid, we have the Play Ball initiative that we announced at the All-Star Game. The idea there is, if you want to play in an organized league, we'll find an organized league to play in. But if there are other non-structured activities that will allow you to enjoy baseball -- the kinds of games I know I played as a kid -- trying to encourage grass-roots activities.
"Similarly, RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) -- more targeted in terms of the areas in which we operate. But we're giving 200,000 kids in underserved areas an opportunity to play that they wouldn't have otherwise. And then as you start up the pyramid, you get into the academies. We have six academies on line now, more on the drawing board. Obviously, those get into more structured, elite kind of play.
"And then just this week, [MLB COO] Tony Petitti and I visited Dodgertown, where we held the first Major League Baseball Elite Development Camp. We had 158 really premier top players in the 13 to 16 age group. And the idea with those elite camps is to give kids who are playing in great programs like the programs here something to aspire to. That highest possible opportunity -- exposure to former Major League players as coaches."
Still, the Commissioner made it clear he believes there's room to grow.
"Youth participation is a really competitive space," Manfred said. "Kids have more options. Cal and I were talking about this. Not only do they have more options, but every sport is trying to make them one-sport athletes. I think that over the last 20 years, baseball has probably underinvested in youth efforts. I think we have a lot of work to do in this space to make sure baseball is as competitive as possible."
Manfred praised the work being done by Ripken and other youth leagues.
"I think it's important for Major League Baseball to be active in the youth space," he said. "But we're not looking to displace anybody. We understand that the youth market is going to be successful for us if we lend a hand to great operating programs like Ripken Baseball and Babe Ruth and Little League and assist in developing a common strategy that all of these great programs use to assist kids.
"You can't replicate from an office in New York the kind of success Cal has had here on the ground. So for us, it's important that I come here. We learn, we try to crossfertilize with other programs and we try to figure out ways we can work with somebody like Cal to achieve what he characterized a few minutes ago as our common goal."
Both are concerned with studies that show kids losing interest as they enter their teens.
"All sports, if you look at them in terms of youth participation, have challenges of age-appropriate modifications," said Manfred. "One of the challenges of that 13 group is, 'How big should the field be?' It's something we're going to work hard at moving forward."
Ripken Baseball, which is affiliated with the Babe Ruth League, uses a field that is between Little League and Major League dimensions.
"We'd really like to get more kids staying in the game a little longer at the 13 age group," said Ripken. "That's where they have more options. But the size of the field is usually the challenge. It's a different ballgame once you move to the big field."
Which turns out to be just another common goal for the Commissioner and the Hall of Famer.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.