Cal Ripken vs. Little League

The Ironman is out to be the No. 1 name in youth baseball

Unlike many pro athletes, Cal Ripken won't be stepping into a career abyss when his playing days draw to a close later this year. The legendary Baltimore Oriole already has laid a foundation for the next phase of his life. In fact, if you go to Aberdeen, Md., you can watch them pour the concrete.

Ripken, 41, is hell-bent on being the biggest name in American youth baseball. And he has spent the past few years devising what he hopes will be the killer brand of the pint-size set: Ripken Baseball. The future Hall of Famer formed the baseball instruction company five years ago with his kid brother, Bill, a 10-year major leaguer. Since then, the duo has run $575-a-week overnight camps and a string of day camps where the coaches are their ex-teammates. And they're hardly stopping there.

Last October, in their hometown of Aberdeen, 30 miles north of Baltimore, construction began on the Taj Mahal of kids' baseball parks. The 56-acre facility will cost about $35 million--$9 million more than first estimates. Taxpayers will kick in $14 million, with the expectation of economic development. The rest will come from naming rights, sponsor deals, private investors--and Ripken, who will hang up his spikes after 20 years and 2,632 consecutive games. The complex will feature a 6,500-seat minor-league stadium (opening in April), six youth diamonds dressed up as classic parks (Wrigley Field, among them), and a camp/conference center with room to sleep 400.

That's a lot of bunks to fill, but Ripken thinks he has it figured out. Two years ago, he accepted a proposal from the Trenton (N.J.)-based Babe Ruth League Inc. to rename its league for 5- to 12-year-olds the "Cal Ripken Division." Now the Ripken Division's 600,000 players wear Ripken Baseball shoulder patches and are potential overnight guests at the Ripken Baseball complex. Still, the Babe Ruth League, with total participation of 886,500, is far smaller than Little League Baseball Inc. in Williamsport, Pa., which claims nearly 3 million players worldwide and took in $12.6 million in revenues in 2000.

As Ripken tells it, unseating Little League has never been part of his plan. "I don't see it as a competition at all," he says. But it sure will seem that way on Sunday, Aug. 26: The title game of the Little League World Series will be on ABC only hours after the Ripken World Series, on Fox Sports Net, crowns its 12-year-old champs in Vincennes, Ind. And next August, the Ripken World Series will be played in Aberdeen on a scale replica of Camden Yards, Ripken's home ballpark.

"THAT WAS AWESOME." In one category, Ripken already appears to be out-Littling the Little League World Series: corporate sponsors. Corporations, many with long-standing ties to Cal, are ponying up as much as $500,000 to sponsor the Ripken Series. Title sponsor Chevy Trucks will have outfield billboards and will air commercials featuring Ripken. Other sponsors are paying to attach their names to events, including the Century 21 Home Run Hitting Contest.

Ripken seems an improbable challenger to Little League. In 1973, he was a star on a West Asheville (N.C.) team that came close to qualifying for the Little League World Series. Little League President Stephen D. Keener declined to speak with BusinessWeek for this article. Replying to written questions, he wished Ripken luck with his Aberdeen complex but noted: "We certainly believe Little League is the best."

Ripken might differ on that point. So might some of the kids in his upstart league. At last year's Ripken World Series, Kyle Smith of Clovis, Calif., was voted Most Valuable Player. But Kyle's most indelible memory was of sitting across a breakfast table from Ripken. "That was awesome. What else can a 12-year-old ask for?" he says now. It's a question that Ripken hopes a few million more kids will soon be asking.

By Mark Hyman in Baltimore

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.