MARQUETTE PARK — During that difficult time in my childhood when the White Sox were an American League doormat, my favorite baseball player was Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles.
I’ll always remember the game in June 1986 when the Orioles came to Old Comiskey Park on “Beach Sandal Night.”
That’s when I stole a pair of giveaway beach sandals from a pack of drunken fans for a man claiming to be Ripken’s cousin because he promised to send me a baseball autographed by the future Hall of Famer.
A few months later, I received an autographed 8-by-10 glossy picture of Ripken that read, “To Mark, Never give up. Cal Jr.”
As a teenager, I kept that picture on my dresser and really took the message from a guy they call “The Iron Man” to heart.
Sure, I quit the Thornwood High School baseball team that ultimately won the state championship, but I never quit chasing after the things more important to me than sports. And that made all the difference in my life.
So, when I heard Ripken would be at Marquette Park Tuesday to cut the ribbon on a brand new ballfield that the foundation named after his father, I knew had to be there to tell him about the stolen sandals and how his autograph inspired a boy with big league dreams to become a reporter who won’t take “no comment” for an answer, at least not without a fight.
Ripken smiled as I told him how those words he wrote on a picture — "never give up" — meant more to me than he could ever have known.
“How about that,” he said.
I asked Ripken about the motivation behind his dedication to youth baseball and the foundation’s push to build 50 new ballfields in five years — a goal accomplished the moment he cut the orange ribbon at Marquette Park and tucked a piece in the breast pocket of his suit like a pocket square.
“I always liked the influence I had on kids as a baseball player, and really it was a way to direct them into doing some good things using the platform of baseball,” he said.
And he says he still feels that way in retirement, even though most of the kids the foundation helps probably have no idea that he played pro baseball, let alone accomplished all the things that got him in the Hall of Fame.
“I still wanted to help. … I don’t know if it was immediately to do it through the [Cal Ripken Sr.] foundation,” he said. “But when we lost our dad, that became the focus because that was part of Dad’s life.”
There’s something special about the way Ripken honors his father’s legacy of using baseball to teach kids life lessons with love and charity in his heart.
“My dad left us too early. He died of lung cancer in 1999. He was only 63 years old. My brother Billy and I sat down and tried to figure out what was the legacy of [our dad’s] life. We determined it was helping kids,” Ripken said.
“He used baseball, his platform, to go reach out to other kids, kids who didn’t have the same advantages. He went out there and spoke the language of baseball, made them curious about baseball. But really what he was doing was matching caring adults with kids that needed that sort of guidance.”
Ripken probably doesn’t even know it, but his dedication to his father’s legacy through youth baseball is particularly relevant on the South Side this year.
It’s no secret that Jackie Robinson West’s de facto president Bill Haley made it his life’s mission to maintain the legacy of the youth league his late father, Joe Haley, founded in 1971.
When Little League named Bill Haley “volunteer of the year” in 2010, he said, “Because of my dad, winning this award is really personal for me. He certainly deserves a large part of it. I am just happy to continue what my dad and others established and built into a cornerstone for the neighborhood.”
Five years later, the Jackie Robinson West league became a national disgrace in the wake of the adult-orchestrated cheating scandal that stripped the All Stars of the 2014 Little League World Series U.S. Title.
Haley still hasn’t publicly admitted to cheating and has refused to accept Little League’s decision to oust him from his leadership role, a move that doesn’t allow Jackie Robinson West kids to play under the Little League banner until he and others resign their posts.
Instead, Haley decided to switch his league’s affiliation to a national organization that also happens to be run by a son working hard to honor his father’s legacy called Cal Ripken Baseball.
I gently asked Ripken about the JRW scandal and what effect it might have on youth baseball in Chicago.
I wish Bill Haley could have been there to hear directly from Ripken as the 19-time All Star and owner of a World Series ring, two Gold Gloves and eight Silver Slugger Awards talked about whether youth baseball suffers when adults put too much importance on winning at all costs.
“I don’t sit in judgment by any means,” Ripken said. “It’s all about kids, opportunity and exposure. Me personally in the effort with the foundation, we’re not worried about finding big league players. We’re trying to use the lessons in sport that are going to give them a chance in life. That’s what this is all about and what our mission is here.
“Who knows, maybe you’ll find a kid who has that super special talent that will take him to the big leagues. But sport teaches so much. And we’re utilizing what Dad’s tools were, the beauty and love of sport, to reach kids.”
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