Ripkens hold open forum

WOODBRIDGE –It’s been nearly two years since Cal Ripken, Jr., played his final major league game. Even in his retirement, he’s stayed close to the game by owning a New York-Penn League franchise in his hometown and running clinics for kids and coaches, like the one at Forest Park High School on Sunday.

It’s been nearly two years, but not much looks different. As he demonstrated a batting drill, his straight stance and smooth swing looked just like it did during the final years of his career. But instead of hitting a home run at Camden Yards the night he broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak, he stood at halfcourt at knocked rubber balls off the young school’s still empty championship banners.

Ripken, his brother, Bill, and John Habyan dispensed some of their knowledge of the game to around 90 coaches — mostly from youth organizations– at Sunday’s clinic. Most of the coaches came from Virginia and Maryland, but a few from Pennsylvania made the trip. There was even a coach from Montana.

By now, the routine is pretty familiar. The Ripkens and Habyan know what topics they want to cover, but they maintain an open forum.

“The more [clinics] you do, the more you find your voice. And it’s a learning opportunity,” said Cal Ripken, Jr. “I describe it less as a clinic and more as an open discussion. [Coaches’] feedback is valuable to us.”

They’ve done enough clinics that the results of teaching help in answering questions too, just in case their years in the major leagues fails to help a uniquely youth problem.

One coach on Sunday talked about one of his players that held his breath in the batters’ box. That reminded the elder Ripken of a clinic in Seattle, where shortstop Alex Rodriguez told attendants he imagined himself blowing the ball out of the park — on his swing, Rodriguez exhales.

But with all that knowledge comes limits. Cal Ripken advised one coach that situational hitting shouldn’t be too much of a concern for an 11-year old.

“I think there’s a quote that getting from the wealth of your experience to a simple message is the difference between education and wisdom. We’ve got a broad range of wisdom,” Cal Ripken said. “We’ll teach as much as you want as far as strategies and theories, but with kids, it’s a simple message. We take a complicated issue and help them understand what they have to do.”

“There’s not enough time in the day for us to talk about the finer points,” said Bill Ripken. “Our job today is very basic, very broad, for coaches of 9-year olds and 17-year olds to be able to help their players.”

One of the most basic lessons is to make sure the kids have fun in the game. Emphasizing winning too much, the Ripkens believe, leads to a pressure-filled environment that isn’t conducive to learning.

“By creating high expectations, that takes the life and fun out of the game,” Cal Ripken said. “With less of an emphasis on winning, that creates an environment that’s less pressurized.

“Let them play … because we’re returning the game to them.”

In turn, that keeps the game fresh for kids and they will likely want to learn more and more about the game. By developing a love for the game internally “growing that seed,” Cal Ripken said, that helps build better baseball players.

“That’s a tough job for coaches, because you could do 1,000 positive things positively,” Cal Ripken said. “But one negative thing at the wrong time, and that could kill off that seed.”

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