Campus & Community

Five Questions: Cal Ripken Jr.

Hall of Fame baseball player, philanthropist and best-selling author Cal Ripken Jr. will deliver Stevens Institute of Technology’s 2022 undergraduate commencement address on May 25

For 2,632 consecutive games, Cal Ripken Jr. played in front of massive crowds, giving his all to the game of baseball. As the legendary shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles for 21 seasons, he redefined the position and was the embodiment of grit and perseverance. After his retirement, the Hall of Famer devoted his life to a second career in business and philanthropy, specifically youth outreach. In 2001, his family established the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation in memory of his father. Since its inception, the foundation has impacted more than 10 million children in underserved communities. 

On May 25, Ripken will be facing another crowd, 675 undergraduates at Stevens Institute of Technology’s 150th commencement for the Class of 2022, to share the lessons he learned as a player, entrepreneur and philanthropist. Ripken took some time to speak with us and clued us in to his secret for a meaningful life.

You retired from baseball in October 2001, which coincidentally is same year in which many of our graduates were born. Since 2001, you have embarked upon several new careers, including author, ambassador and chairperson of Ripken Baseball. What are the challenges and rewards of taking on new roles throughout an ever-evolving career? 

It’s scary. The interesting part is when I retired from baseball, I was 41 and I was thinking, I’ve saved my money pretty well and I don’t have to do anything if I don’t want to, I can just be in retirement. That lasted for about six months. I realized I had a chance for a second career. I decided to go into the business of baseball, but on the youth side. We also bought a minor league team and that was a wonderful learning model for business in general—it was one I was familiar with. I guess now I’ve had more experience in the business side than I have in my 21-year career in baseball. A lot of what I’ve learned through baseball I could apply to my second career.

One of the greatest opportunities I had was that I could get anyone on the phone and ask them a question, or I could meet different people that have been successful in that area and ask them a question, and I could learn just being around them. I searched out some pretty good mentors that helped me sidestep a few mistakes, but they also allowed me to make a ton of mistakes and learn from them.

As in so many aspects of our lives, big data has become important in sports. The book and film Moneyball describe how the 2003 Oakland Athletics built a team using data. What do you think the impact of technology will have on sports?

I always thought baseball was a thinking man’s game. When I played the position of shortstop, my size was unique for that position. Normally there’s someone smaller that would cover that ground; I was 6’4, 225 pounds and given the opportunity to play short. I couldn’t model myself after these smaller guys, so I had to figure it out myself in many ways. I figured out different angles, how I could anticipate a little more, where the ball was going to go before it went. A lot of factors were involved in that process, but that’s just how I thought.

What’s happening in Major League Baseball right now is technology has come in — and in a big way. I think it’s wonderful in scouting. Teams have had success using different technologies to analyze hitters and pitchers. It confirms a lot of subjective opinions you may have with hard data. That’s what you saw in Moneyball. Billy Beane wanted confirmation of more than just subjective opinions from a bunch of his scouts. A scout’s opinion could be all over the place and you don’t want to be just tied to someone’s opinion of somebody when it’s tied to millions of dollars.

On the development side, they’re trying to figure out what information they can give a hitter or pitcher that will make them better through analysis. I embrace the technology, but I also think there’s a chance it can overload a player. There are so many different scenarios, there are so many different things to absorb and analyze. It would have worked for me, but it can be overwhelming. There’s an evolution that’s taking place now where you need to match the data with the baseball people so you can decide which data is most important, how you use it, how you give it to a player to make him better and how you make a team better. The end game is to use everything available to make that player better and strengthen the team, and the data will help scout the right people.

You talked about how analytics and technology are reshaping the sports world. On a personal note, and as a bonus question, did you ever meet Billy Beane and talk to him about his book?

I played against Billy Beane. When he came up, he was a highly touted prospect. He had all this potential, but then never lived up to it. When he went into management, he said scouts looked at him as a can’t-miss prospect, yet he couldn’t make it, so he saw it as an opportunity to look into the numbers. Moneyball came out near my retirement, early 2000s, and I called Billy up to discuss it with him for a little bit. He was very proud of the accomplishment. I asked him, “If you feel this is a competitive advantage, why put it in the book?” He stopped and said, “We’re onto other things now.” He laughed and I thought that was a good answer. It was fun to poke him a little bit and ask him about the book, but thing is, if you have a different perspective or you can come out with a different angle, it’s all good stuff.

You traveled the world as an ambassador using baseball to spread goodwill in countries including Nicaragua, Japan and Czech Republic. In doing so, you have interacted with people with very different backgrounds and lived experiences. Can you describe how those interactions have influenced the career choices that you have made?

When you put a team together, there are different personalities and different ways to communicate. Sometimes, it almost seems like a different language. You may not be aware of how some people on your team absorb information, you might offend them or you might not get the point across because you come at it from a different side. Traveling really helps you communicate, it helps with your thinking, especially when you have to reduce something complicated to a simple message to get your point across. I’m really thankful I’ve had the opportunity, thanks to baseball, to go to these places and speak the language of baseball but also learn about different cultures. We’re in the kid business of baseball, giving kids more experiences to play the game on great fields, but when you’re teaching kids, the communication is different. You want to make sure that they have fun, but you want to make sure you give them fundamentals so they get something out of it, so it can’t all be just fun. And it also can’t be just teaching. It needs to be a combination of both, and we used that when we went into places where we introduced baseball.

That includes places here in the United States where you would think baseball is all around. My world revolved around baseball, so I thought everybody knew about it, but you find out that they don’t, especially in some of the inner cities. Early on, I was in Washington, D.C. at a Boys and Girls Club introducing baseball and we had to teach these kids how to hold the bat. It was really wonderful to see how when you start to give them some small instruction, their natural athletic ability starts to take over. I love it because normally the bigger kids progress faster in sports, but in baseball it’s not all about size and strength, although that helps. It’s about hand-eye coordination. Many times, the smaller kids outperform the bigger kids. It’s great to see how all the other kids then ask the little kids, ‘How did you do that? How did you hit the ball so far?’

My dad was on the development side, in the minor leagues, for the first 14 years of my life. I learned there’s so much more to teaching than knowing the fundamentals. We all have different strengths and different hand-eye coordination, and we all bring something different to the table. We celebrate the individual. That’s our teaching philosophy. There are no two people in the big leagues that hit exactly the same, so meeting them where they are and discovering who they are to try to make them better was innate in my dad’s ability. He didn’t teach or instruct everybody the same way. He didn’t manage everybody the same way. It’s really interesting to understand who you are trying to help and who you are teaching as an important aspect of leadership so that you can make that one-on-one connection. Traveling and meeting different people can help you gain that perspective.

In 2001, you and your family established the Cal Ripkin Sr. Foundation, which has impacted more than 10 million kids in underserved communities. What advice do you have for building a career — and living a life — that is personally fulfilling while also giving back to communities?

When I grew up my parents were very community oriented with their time. There are a couple aspects of being able to help in your community, and the most valuable thing is giving your time. When you have career success, take a look around and figure out how you want to have an impact in your community. My dad used to tell me if you become a big league baseball player, look at how many people you can help. You can make some money and you can help in that way, but you can also help with your influence. I didn’t absorb that until my second year when I signed a longer-term contract. That’s when I really started to help others and it gave me meaning in my life.

In the beginning I said yes to everything that I thought was a good cause. I was helping a lot of people in sort of a piecemeal way and then when my dad died, my brother Billy and I decided we would focus our attention more on kids and helping them stay away from trouble and give them a chance. That’s what dad did so naturally, so we focused most of our resources in that direction so we could make a bigger difference. There’s a special feeling you get when you’re directing your resources and your time toward helping other people.

You played in a record 2,632 consecutive major league baseball games, your name becoming synonymous with perseverance, integrity and grit. What advice do you have for our graduates to develop and maintain those same qualities as they venture out into their own careers? 

People that are going out into the world need a basis in education, and now they should learn to understand how they are going to try to apply those fundamentals. What do successful people do that you can also do to help yourself? What’s the common thread? There are common sense things, and also common threads woven throughout a lot of successful people’s lives, but I’ll keep that answer a secret until I speak to your graduates.