These are baseball's good old days. Maybe not in Milwaukee or
Miami, major league outposts where the teams are lousy and the
citizenry has better things to worry about than millionaire
owners feuding with millionaire players. But the pastime was
alive and well early Sunday night in Williamsport, Pa., where
the final of the Little League World Series was played. Left in
the hands of kids, baseball's fine.
Throughout Little League's 10-day world series, attendance was
way up, 10% higher than last year's. More than 41,000 people
attended Sunday night's finale as families filled the giant hill
behind the outfield fence, sprawling on blankets and lodging in
lawn chairs, enjoying one of the great free rites of the
American summer. (There's no charge for admission in
Williamsport. Beat that, Bud.) Sunday's telecast, live on ABC,
drew a 5.9 overnight rating. Those viewers saw Louisville beat
Sendai, Japan, 1-0, behind the arm and bat of 12-year-old
righthander Aaron Alvey, who homered for the game's only run and
struck out 11 en route to setting series records for strikeouts
(44) and scoreless innings (21), and tying the mark for
consecutive no-hit innings (12). Saturday night's Little League
U.S. final, the first ever televised by a major network in prime
time, drew a 3.7 overnight rating on ABC. And this year ESPN
carried 18 Little League World Series games, eight more than it
showed just two years ago.
The game was also thriving late Sunday afternoon in the
heartland town of Mattoon, Ill., where a good portion of the
population came out to see the final of the third annual Cal
Ripken World Series--and to see Cal Ripken Jr. himself. The
scene was much the same as in Williamsport, but with a little
rebel spirit thrown in from an unlikely source. Ripken, the
ultimate baseball establishment man, has attached his name (and
devoted much of his first summer off in forever) to an insurgent
league. Since 1999 the 12-and-under division of the Babe Ruth
League has been called Cal Ripken Baseball. Shortly before Tony
Gwynn broadcast the 2002 Little League final for ABC, Ripken
worked his game for Fox Sports Net.
Every seat was taken in the wooden stands of Mattoon's Lawson
Park (capacity 10,024) on Sunday afternoon as Visalia, Calif.,
defeated Korea 6-1. The big hit was a bases-loaded triple by Matt
Chavez, a substitute who was at the plate only because Visalia
coach Adrian Acevedo had promised Ripken that he would get all of
his players in the game. Former big leaguers Don Mattingly and
Ryne Sandberg were on hand. Next year the Ripken World Series
will move permanently to the Iron Man's hometown, Aberdeen, Md.
Anyone who has talked to the Baltimore Orioles legend about his
league--Ripken is, in effect, its unpaid commissioner--has come
away with the same impression: Ripken is approaching his
postplaying life with the same determination that made him the
alltime leader in consecutive games played. He is devoted to the
league that bears his name.
Little League International is by far the biggest youth baseball
organization in the world, with 2.1 million boys and girls under
the age of 13 playing in 104 countries. Ripken Baseball is a
distant second, with 600,000 boys and girls playing in the U.S.
and five other countries (box, page 53). Over time, as Ripken
infuses into his league his baseball philosophy--that the game
should be fun--his numbers may well catch up to Little League's.
The man does nothing halfway.
For now both leagues have a good thing going, even if, as Ripken
implies but never actually says, Little League sometimes takes
itself too seriously. What's not to like? Millions of Mini-Me's
playing a junior version of major league baseball, expertly
mimicking big league manners, right down to the way some
five-foot-nothing kid, disgusted with a called strike, steps away
from the plate and reaches down for a fistful of batter's-box
dirt. This year the team from Harlem that made it to the Little
League quarterfinals showed a joie de baseball unimaginable among
the all-business New York Yankees.
In some ways the 11- and 12-year-old ballplayers in Mattoon and
Williamsport were playing a better game than their grown-up
brethren. The pitchers worked quickly, and the games--the perfect
length at six innings--were played in well under two hours. About
the only thing that slowed games down were pitchers who couldn't
find the strike zone and coaches who couldn't find their personal
Ripken has solutions for those problems. He'd like his league to
expand the strike zone up and down, to encourage kids to swing.
(You learn more by whiffing than by walking, Ripken says, and
more to the point, it's more fun to swing the bat than to let it
snooze on your shoulder.) He dreams of a rule requiring coaches
to speak in nothing louder than a whisper. His nine-year-old son,
Ryan, plays Ripken Baseball, so Cal's understanding of the
frustrations of players he calls "little guys" is deep and
In Williamsport last week there was a lot of earnest commentary,
from old-school Little League hands and professional commentators
alike, about showboating and about home run trots that bordered
on break dancing. Ripken's basically fine with that stuff. "Let
kids be kids," he says.
Someday he would love for the winner of the Cal Ripken World
Series to play the winner of the Little League World Series.
Another dream. "That's nothing we would be interested in," says
Lance Van Auken, the director of media relations for Little
League. "It wouldn't be an even playing field. The rules about
how we draw our players are too different. Little League has more
geographic limitations." (Because Ripken's league has fewer
participants, it fields its teams from a larger geographical
They're starting to get just a little edgy with each other, the
Little League people and the Babe Ruth people. Ron Tellefsen, the
CEO of Babe Ruth, isn't afraid to sound like a rabble-rouser.
"Our athletes are with host families in Mattoon," he boasts. "In
Williamsport, the kids stay in barracks."
Van Auken, as the voice of the senior circuit, responds without
emotion. "Barracks is a military term," he says. "Our players
stay in modern dormitories, with shatterproof glass and
scald-free showers. The kids have a great time staying in them."
Van Auken points out, coolly, of course, that in 1973 Ripken was
the losing pitcher for his West Asheville, N.C., team in the
Little League Southern Regional tournament. He makes sure you
know that in 1996, when Ripken was inducted into the Little
League Hall of Excellence, his agent approached officials in
Williamsport about attaching the Iron Man's name to Little
League in some way--a merger of an American baseball hero and an
American sporting institution. The talks went nowhere, Van Auken
says, because "we don't name our programs after particular
Ripken says he knows nothing about that overture to Little
League. His focus is only on the future. He has notebooks filled
with ideas about how to improve Cal Ripken Baseball. He'd like to
have a certification program for coaches and umpires and an oath
of good behavior for parents. He thinks kids shouldn't show bunt
and then not bunt. "That's just trying to confuse the pitcher,"
he says. He thinks outfield fences and pitcher's mounds need to
be moved out, to accommodate today's well-fed kids. Then there's
his "whisper rule."
"I was at one of Ryan's games this year, and the coach of the
other team was saying to his batter, 'You're the man. Make him
throw strikes. He's having control problems. Make him come to
you,'" Ripken said the other day. "Normally at these games I'm
very quiet. But this was too much. So I said to him, 'Are you
talking to your batter or our pitcher?' What grown-up can't get
in the head of a little guy and have an impact on the outcome of
the game?" In the presence of the great Ripken, the overzealous
coach grew immediately silent. "You can either water the seed or
kill it," Ripken says.
Ripken's involvement in youth baseball is not purely altruistic.
It gives him a national booth from which to sell instructional
books and CD-ROMs and sign kids up for his baseball camps.
Ripken's value to the companies he endorses, particularly
Coca-Cola and Chevy Trucks, increases as he remains in the public
eye. There's all sorts of synergy, to borrow one of Ripken's new
words. (He uses many of the buzzwords and phrases of the modern
businessman: signage, amenities, distribution strategies.) Here's
some synergy for you: Chevy Trucks is the main sponsor of the Cal
Ripken World Series.
But money is not Ripken's motivation. He's in youth baseball to
honor the memory of his baseball-loving father, to keep busy, to
do a new thing well. "Ron Tellefsen saw an opportunity for Babe
Ruth to rebrand its lower division for me," says Ripken. "At
first it seemed weird, because I was still playing. But the more
I thought about it, I saw an opportunity to directly impact the
grass roots of baseball."
In Aberdeen, Ripken is building a baseball Mecca right off I-95,
the main street of the Eastern Seaboard. There's already a
magnificent new ballpark that houses a Ripken-owned minor league
Orioles affiliate, the Class A Aberdeen IronBirds. Next door
construction is under way on the Cal Ripken Baseball Academy,
where there will be at least four fields (each patterned after a
famous major league park), one of which will become the home of
the Cal Ripken World Series. Someday, maybe, Aberdeen will be as
famous as Williamsport.
Earlier this year Ripken had a series of meetings with Paul
Seiler, the executive director of USA Baseball, the national
governing body for amateur baseball. The two men talked about
moving the organization's headquarters from Tucson to Aberdeen.
The deal did not materialize, but Seiler was impressed by
Ripken's commitment to amateur baseball.
"You know that Cal Ripken Baseball will be run Cal's way and will
be excellent," says Seiler. "This is a great time for amateur
baseball, with the Ripken World Series and the Little League
World Series going on. Cal's league can only improve Little
League. Competition is good. But the reality is that when major
league baseball has labor woes, there are ramifications all the
way down. Parents get turned off, and then their kids get turned
off. Cal's going to find the same challenges that we all find:
How does baseball compete with skateboarding and Nintendo and
In Mattoon last week Ripken didn't seem much worried about
revenue sharing or the Williamsport series or Nintendo-addled
kids or anything else. Mattoon is like Aberdeen, a town that
hasn't tangled much with progress, and Ripken looked at home
there. One morning he stood in the outfield, shagging balls with
his new little buddies during a home run derby. On Friday the
town came out for a parade down Broadway, and Ripken was right
in the middle of it, sitting high on a Chevy truck, making
graceful waves to the townspeople on a warm summer night. On
Sunday afternoon, as he broadcast the final, his final, he took
in the crowd and the game and the moment and looked for all the
world like the most contented man in baseball.
TWO COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER FIELD OF DREAMS While big leaguers were talking strike, attendance was up 10% at Williamsport's Lamade Stadium.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BILL FRAKES (2) CHILD'S PLAY Ripken wants every kid to take his cuts, a philosophy that paid dividends for Acevedo (left, center).
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES (LEFT) STAR SEARCH Visalia's Chavez (left) was an unlikely hero, while Louisville's Alvey and his 78-mph fastballs sank Sendai.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (TOP) ECSTASY AND AGONY Louisville (top), the second U.S. team since 1993 to win the Little League title, drove Japan to tears.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above]
Taking on the Big Boys
The Babe Ruth League had been around for nearly half a century
before it renamed its Bambino youth division Cal Ripken Baseball
in 1999. Even so, Ripken's league--and the world series it holds
for 11- and 12-year-olds--has a long way to go to match Little
LITTLE LEAGUE CAL RIPKEN
Age of players 5-12 5-12
Number of participants 2.1 million 600,000
Countries with leagues 104 6
Year founded 1939 1951*
Unofficial motto Teamwork, sportsmanship Teaching the Ripken
and fair play Way
Marquee event Little League World Cal Ripken Baseball
Series World Series
Location Williamsport, Pa. Mattoon, Ill.
Future major leaguers 23 None
who played in world
2002 champion Louisville Visalia, Calif.
2002 title game ABC Fox Sports Net
Total 2002 world 20 3
Foreign champions 29 None
*Year Babe Ruth League was founded
Will move to Aberdeen, Md., in 2003
Both leagues have a good thing going, even if, as Ripken implies
but never says, Little League sometimes takes itself too
In some ways the 11- and 12-year-olds in Mattoon and Williamsport
were playing a better game than their grown-up brethren.