Reaffirming his reputation as baseball’s “iron man,” Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. returned to the field last week under a hot Nicaraguan sun for three days of baseball clinics to teach fundamentals to children, youth players and coaches.
Ripken, the former Baltimore Oriole and arguably the best shortstop to play the game, is now suiting up for the U.S. State Department as an “American public diplomacy envoy” to help spread goodwill in other countries through the game he played so well for 20 seasons.
Between giving batting tips to veteran Nicaraguan players and soft-tossing pitches to youngsters, the 19-time All Star who played his final Major League game in 2001, talked to The Nica Times about his continued passion for baseball and its ability to transcend differences in culture and language.
Ripken says he recently came back from a similar goodwill trip to China, where baseball was mostly a foreign concept to most youth. So to follow that up with a trip to Nicaragua – where even the youngest players know how to tap the plate like a pro when they come up to bat – was a fun experience for the baseball ambassador.
“In Nicaragua they love baseball and there is an obvious interest in understanding the game and learning,” Ripken says.
The former Rookie of the Year (’82) and two-time Most Valuable Player (’83, ’91) displayed a natural ease and sense of humor with the children, appearing as comfortable goofing around with 10-year-olds as he was batting with the game on the line back in the prime of his career. Ripken stressed the importance of having fun with baseball, even when it just means tossing soft balls to youngsters who seem unsure which way to run after making contact with the bat.
But in addition to enjoying the game, Ripken says he appreciates the values and life lessons inherent in the “American pastime.”
“Baseball, more than some sports, promotes individual responsibility within the cohesion of a team,” Ripken said during a timeout at a youth clinic in Granada.
Ripken should know. His most heralded baseball accomplishment was both an incredible individual feat and the ultimate example of team dedication: He played – sometimes through injury – in 2,632 consecutive games (spanning 16 seasons) without missing a game, shattering the 56-year-old record held by New York Yankee legend Lou Gehrig.
Ripken says baseball teaches youth to strive for personal development “within the framework of your team.” And to exceed in baseball, he says, players need to value hard work.
The Hall of Famer, who was accompanied during his visit here by Nicaraguan baseball star Denis Martínez – the winningest Latino pitcher in Major League history and a former teammate of Ripken in Baltimore – also had positive things to say about the young talent he saw in Nicaragua.
“This is a talented group of kids, they are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the game,” Ripken says after an afternoon workout with several youth teams, including an all-girls baseball team from Tipitapa.
“I would take these kids any day of the week.”
Ripken also stresses the importance of giving kids “consistent support” to develop their baseball talent. He notes that the Dominican Republic, which currently has more than 90 players in the Majors (compared to Nicaragua, which has 2), didn’t start off being a baseball powerhouse, rather started slowly but has worked hard to develop its youth talent with clinics and baseball programs.
With similar organization and focus in Nicaragua, Ripken says, there’s no reason to expect that this country couldn’t do the same.
“There is clearly good talent here … and the kids want to play,” Ripken says. “All it takes is a decision to get it done and it will get done.”
After giving the kids some parting gifts, including a pouch of Big League Chew bubblegum, Ripken and his staff went to visit the rural neighborhood outside Granada where the kids from the morning session live. The kids, all students at a neighborhood school run by non-governmental organization Empowerment International, received Ripken outside their schoolhouse and gave him a baseball signed by each of the students.
Ripken returned the gesture by donating a duffel bag full of school supplies and equipment to play “Quickball” – a foam-ball version of baseball for kids.
After the clinic in Granada, Ripken and his staff gave a similar clinic in Managua but had to cancel the clinic in León due to political violence there.