Cal Ripken Jr. and the selling of youth baseball

By promoting nearly year-round play, is he potentially contributing to the epidemic of Tommy John elbow surgeries plaguing the sport?
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The centerpiece of the Ripken Experience in Aberdeen, Md., is a replica of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The centerpiece of the Ripken Experience in Aberdeen, Md., is a replica of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The “warehouse” beyond the outfield is home to a Marriott hotel.

Fourteen years removed from his Hall of Fame playing career with the Baltimore Orioles, Cal Ripken Jr. now talks to Sports Illustrated about “the business of Cal.”

He explains to Fortune Magazine how his company, Ripken Baseball, is “looking to grow mostly in the youth tournament space.”

Ripken was credited with saving baseball in 1995 – one year after a labor dispute claimed the World Series – when he passed Lou Gehrig for the most consecutive games played (his streak ultimately reached 2,632 games).

But these days, Ripken is very much about selling baseball – quite literally – to youth players, which is to say parents who are willing to shell out big bucks to send their children to one of Ripken Baseball’s tournaments or camps.

Meanwhile, Tommy John elbow surgeries are the story so far this year in Major League Baseball, and some fingers are pointing at the excesses of youth tournaments as a primary culprit.

“Pitchers are throwing harder than ever – and on a year-round basis at a younger age – both of which can add stress to a very delicate ligament,” noted a recent story in USA Today.

Renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews has described it as an “epidemic” of Tommy John surgeries, which involve rebuilding worn-out elbows with a ligament transplant.

From March until Thanksgiving

Although Ripken Baseball owns minor league baseball teams, “The future growth for us now is in youth complexes and tournaments,” Ripken told Sports Illustrated.

Ripken’s complexes in Aberdeen, Md., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., operate tournaments from March until Thanksgiving, with the promise of more complexes to come.

The Ripken Experience complex in Aberdeen, Md.

Tournament baseball is big business, and Ripken hardly has a monopoly on it. Another former Oriole, Jack Cust, owns Diamond Nation in Flemington, N.J., for instance. Plans are on the table to turn the Iowa farm featured in “Field of Dreams” into, you guessed it, a tournament complex.

There are plenty of parents who are willing to commit lots of time and dollars to travel/tournament baseball, and a seemingly endless number of for-profit entities operating teams and offering lessons.

A Washington Post story in May concluded: “Millions of dollars are at stake for top pitching prospects, and the best ways to attract the attention of professional scouts — by throwing hard and by showcasing your talents in year-round, top-level tournaments and camps — might also be the same factors that get you hurt.”

Last year, my son, Jack, played three weekend tournaments at the Aberdeen complex. The Ripken Experience is impressive, from the high-quality facilities to the highly visible and competent staff members to the top-notch competition.

Every tournament is the postseason

Still, I have deep reservations about tournament baseball.

What I love most about baseball – what I have always loved about baseball – is the day-to-day nature of it. Win or lose today, you’d better have a short memory because tomorrow is another game. Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint.

Tournament baseball distorts all of that because every tournament is the postseason. Keep winning and you get to keep playing; you might even win a trophy. Lose early and you go home empty handed, except for maybe the tournament T-shirt you bought at the merchandise booth.

There’s plenty of room for abuse, especially when it comes to young pitchers. No team, from Little League to the big leagues, ever has enough pitching. And to win a weekend tournament typically requires playing at least four games in two days. That’s a lot of high-stress innings that have to be pitched in a short amount of time.

Only recently, as our team enjoyed a cookout between two Sunday games, one of the conversations turned to a high-profile Harrisburg-area tournament team having four young players with significant arm problems.

I don’t for a minute think that Ripken wants a single youth player to pitch his way to injury. Just as Cal and brother-partner Billy learned the finer points of baseball at the feet of their father, Cal Sr., so have they passed on their knowledge. Their book, “Play Baseball the Ripken Way,” is in my library.

But I can’t get past the irony of the Iron Man – as the most famous purveyor of tournament baseball in the United States – potentially contributing to the Tommy John epidemic.

In his post-playing career, Ripken told Sports Illustrated, “I’ve invested mostly in myself. If you’re going to put your money someplace, put it behind you.”

But thousands of baseball families have put not only their money but also their faith in the Cal Jr. brand.

Two decades ago, he saved Major League Baseball. Now a nation turns its lonely eyes to Ripken once again and wonders, will he use his position to help save our pitching elbows?

 

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