In 2003 I was serving as Executive Director of the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation – a non-profit organization founded by the Ripken family in memory of their patriarch. Baseball great Cal Ripken, Jr. was the force behind the Foundation, but no less an influence was younger brother Bill, also a former Major Leaguer and always a bit of a crazy man. For instance, Billy had once posed for a Topps baseball card photo with a bat, on the knob of which he had scrawled “Fuck Face.” Not an establishment guy, this one.
I had been pushing the Ripkens to use the Foundation’s resources to support girls who were interested in baseball, not just boys, and so in the spring of that year we staged a softball camp at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, MD for about 100 supposedly “at risk” girls, ages 9-13 or so. The star attraction of our camp was pitcher Jennie Finch, who had won an NCAA Championship with the University of Arizona, and whose million-dollar smile was making her something of an online media celebrity. A year later, Jennie would also go on to win an Olympic gold medal.
On the first day of the camp, the girls arrived and we outfitted them all in heather gray “Ripken Foundation Softball Camp” t-shirts. They looked really cute, and were very excited about the camp and about meeting Jennie.
I spent about 90 minutes setting up an intricate new PA system on the field, and then at the appointed hour, we lined them all up in the infield, and I spent a few minutes welcoming them and telling them about the foundation and the stadium – my voice booming through the loudspeakers in an otherwise empty stadium. I got them pretty worked up, and then introduced Jennie. She bounded out of the dugout to a chorus of squeals, took the microphone, and told them how excited she was to be there and to help teach them.
Then I introduced Billy Ripken. I handed him the microphone, but he declined. “Thanks, there, Phil Donahue,” he said to me. He walked up to the line of gray shirts and began to yell in his slightly gravelly voice.
“How many of you know what a four-seam grip is?” A bunch of hands shot up.
“OK, and of those who raised their hands, how many of you have been taught the right way to use the four-seam grip when you are throwing a softball?” Two or three hands rose tentatively.
“OK, and of you, how many think you should always use the four-seam grip?” One little girl, indistinguishable from all the others except for a red visor she was wearing, slowly raised her hand. Billy saw her.
“You! Red visor! You think you should always use a four-seam grip?” he bellowed. She slowly nodded her head and he walked toward her.
“Always? Every single time?” She gave one more shaky nod, and Billy stepped back.
“OK, coaches, I want you to keep your eye on Red Visor. Let’s make sure that she is using the four-seam grip each and every time she throws the ball. Because you know what? Red Visor is absolutely right. You should use the four-seam grip all the time!”
Billy said a couple more things to the group, yelling to be heard as he so often does, with just a bit of a twinkle in his eye, and then he broke the long line of gray into a few distinct groups and set them scurrying off to different “stations” that had been set up around the ballpark. But as they headed off, he summoned one more mighty wind.
“Red Visor! I’m going to be watching you!”
And with that, this girl, this brilliant little 10-year-old girl, raised her hand, took off her visor, threw it to the ground, and trotted off into the gray anonymity of her campmates.
Billy saw this, and turned back around to me.
“Hey, Joe, get back on that microphone and page Mrs. Bitterman” – his name for anyone who didn’t take to his motivational tactics. I just turned away.
The camp went off as a big success. Jennie was a hit. Billy and his coaches worked closely with all of the girls, and hopefully instilled some confidence in them despite his menacing methodology. I never really noticed that one girl throughout the rest of the camp.
Shortly thereafter I sent the Ripkens a note, telling them that if they were primarily interested in using the Foundation to teach baseball skills, not life skills, perhaps they ought to find themselves another Executive Director.
By that fall, I was working in the specialty food business.