Lessons from Sports: Cal Ripken Jr.

UPDATED: March 16, 2009
PUBLISHED: March 16, 2009

Setting an example is not the main means of
influencing others; it is the only means.

—Albert Einstein

If Albert Einstein was right, Cal
Ripken should have been a CEO or
politician rather than a shortstop,
because Ripken led by example over
and over… and over again.

Despite being one of only eight players
in baseball history to record 400 home
runs while collecting more than 3,000
hits, despite the fact that he won two most
valuable player awards and appeared in
19 All-Star Games, his lifelong Baltimore
Orioles legacy will always be most closely
linked to one thing: “I had a good attendance
record,” he says with a smile.

In a 21-year career as a major league
baseball player, Ripken is best known as
the Iron Man of his sport. Beginning in May
1982, Ripken played in 2,632 consecutive
baseball games; a streak many believe will
never be eclipsed. The previous record for
consecutive games played, held by New
York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig, stood at
2,130 games. That record was on the books
for more than five decades.

There have been few days since the Hall
of Fame shortstop set the consecutive-games
mark in 1995 when he has not been
asked about the achievement. And no one is
above asking.

In the preface to his 2007 book Get in the
, Ripken tells about a conversation in
the dugout during the 1998 All-Star Game.
Derek Jeter, now a perennial all-star for the
New York Yankees, was playing in his first
midsummer classic. He leaned in to ask
Ripken, “What’s the secret of playing every
day? How do you do it?”

Ripken’s answer to young Jeter was the
same then as it has been for the last 11 years.
“You know, Derek, I just… I just play.”

didn’t just show up
for work, as has sometimes been said. I also
showed up to work."

As unspectacular as the answer might
seem, Ripken says he’s grown to realize he
has to amend it a little. “I didn’t just show up
for work, as has sometimes been said. I also
showed up to work.”

The distinction, Ripken says, sitting in
the offices of his baseball complex outside of
Baltimore, is that he didn’t just clock in; he
made sure he was getting better at his craft
every day. And that is tough to do over two
decades in any job.

“I think the numbers will back
me up,” Ripken says. “I worked at
my game, worked on my weaknesses.
I wanted to make sure that
I wasn’t just on the field, but that I
was a contributor every time I was
out there.”

Making Yourself Indispensable
The numbers do bear him out: In 1978, as a rookie minor-league
shortstop for the team in Bluefield, W.Va., Ripken
committed a league-leading 33 errors. Some worried that
Ripken, a powerful pitcher in high school, might not be suited
for a spot in the infield and the everyday roster. Yet through
practice and repetition—making a habit of staying on the practice
field longer than any teammate he was competing against
for a roster spot—Ripken became one of baseball’s all-time best
at his position. During the season when he edged close to the
record for most consecutive games played, Ripken set another
record, becoming the first shortstop in the history of baseball
to play 95 straight games without committing an error. He
mishandled only three plays that entire season, the best mark
in baseball.

“I think it’s important, especially in this economy, to see
that you can’t stay around if you’re not getting better,” Ripken
says. “No business or baseball team is going to keep people just
because they show up. You have to constantly be looking for
ways to get better, looking for ways to improve
your value to the organization. You have to
develop strong fundamentals—no matter
what you do—and you have to make yourself
indispensable. That requires you to constantly
be evaluating what you’re doing and what
needs to be done.”

That work ethic became Ripken’s true
calling card. He became a legend for showing
up at spring training in midseason condition
and never seemed to tire as he fielded one
ground ball after another during pre-game
warm-ups. Younger players found it impossible
to keep up, even as Ripken became one
of the game’s “graybeards” at age 41. “That was
stubbornness as much as anything else,” he
says of his unwillingness to let men half
his age outwork him. “Sometimes, stubbornness
is a negative. It was a positive
for me.”

The other great lesson Ripken believes
his streak taught others is the value of
conditioning. Though he played one
of the most physically demanding
positions on the field for most of his
career, Ripken escaped serious injury.
At times, his ability to avoid that bug
became a point of humor for those
around him. “Sometimes when he gets
hit by a pitch,” the team’s trainer, Richie
Bancells once famously said, “I’m almost embarrassed to ask
him about it. By the time he gets back to the dugout, the bruise
is gone!”

Passing on the Lessons
As his career wound toward its close, he immediately began
looking for new ways to pass along those lessons. Since retiring
from baseball in 2001, Ripken developed several ways to deliver
that message with both business executives and Little Leaguers.
He began by building his Ripken Academy, a training and
competition complex in his hometown of Aberdeen, Md., 30
miles from Baltimore. The original goal of the facility was to
help Ripken grow baseball at the grass-roots level, but it has
also become home to one of three minor league teams Ripken
Baseball Inc. has purchased. Through their company, Ripken
and his younger brother Bill have a goal of adding seven additional
minor league baseball teams to their business portfolio
over the next seven years.

He also has built the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, named for his
father. The foundation works with at-risk youth in communities
throughout the country to
clean up and rehab ballparks,
and create safe and
secure places for those
children to play baseball
and softball. The goal is
to teach them how to play
“the Ripken way,” which
the foundation defines
as centered around four
fundamentals: Keep the
game simple, especially
for younger pl ayers;
explain why certain skills
are taught when the players ask; make the
teaching of fundamentals fun; and celebrate
the individual by recognizing that no two
players are alike.

“The four principles are the way my
father taught me the game and the way
that I taught the game to my children,”
says Ripken, father of a son and a daughter.
“Passing the principles along is a great way
to honor my father. Baseball gave me and
our family so much, that finding ways like
this to work with the game to give back just
made sense.”

And through his work as a speaker
and author, Ripken has found additional
platforms to explain that the game of
baseball serves as a great metaphor for life,
teaching invaluable lessons to others based
on what he’s learned from a lifetime in
the game.

“My father was a baseball coach and I
watched him as I grew up, and he did things
right and expected others to do things
right,” says Ripken, who played for his dad.
“He never cheated the game of baseball
by not giving his best, and I learned that
great lesson from him. He also took time to
answer all of my questions about what he
did and the coaching decisions he made.
That didn’t just teach me the game, it taught
me how to communicate with others, which
I think made me a better teammate later on
and made me more valuable to the team.”

Additionally, Ripken says his father made
a point of teaching his son to positively
direct his competitiveness. “If he hadn’t,”
the still-imposing Ripken says, “I probably
would have developed a temper, and would
have gotten into it on occasion with another
player or an umpire… and maybe I’d have
been suspended and wouldn’t have
played in all those consecutive games.
“Then what would we be talking
about?” he adds with a laugh.

It Was Never About
the Record

Although it’s unlikely anyone will
supplant Ripken as holder of the
consecutive-games-played record, he
says, “I believe it will happen. No record
lasts forever. In fact, when Lou Gehrig
played the last game of his streak [in
1939], several newspapers said it was a
record that wouldn’t be broken.”

Ripken says there were times he was
shocked at all the attention his streak was
receiving. “I guess it was because people
looked at it as such an ‘old-school’ event, a
sort of celebration of the way things used to
be,” he says. “It reminded people of the days
when people worked and toughed it out. I
guess that’s why so many people felt like they
could relate to it.”

The chase for the record also allowed
many younger fans to become acquainted
with Gehrig, who was known as the Iron
Horse when he played for the Yankees. To
provide perspective about the enormity
of Ripken’s accomplishment, a number of
publications and network television channels
offered profiles of Gehrig, who stopped
playing only because he was diagnosed with
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Among the things he and Gehrig shared,
Ripken says, was that neither of them was
driven by the record.

Another connection between the all-stars
is the Cal Ripken/Lou Gehrig Fund for
Neuromuscular Research, which Ripken
established in 1995 with $2 million he
helped raise by working with the Johns
Hopkins School of Medicine, the Orioles and
a group of Baltimore businessmen.

“Gehrig was as good a man as he was a
player, and if it hadn’t been for the disease
there’s no telling how many games he would
have played in,” Ripken says. “Neither of us
had setting that record as a goal. If we had,
I can’t imagine that it would have happened.
The record isn’t why we played, it isn’t who
we are. It may be the thing most people
know about me and maybe about him, but it
wasn’t why we played. We just did what we
were hired to do, and we knew that part of
being a good teammate was being someone
others could count on. Being there every day
allowed them to count on us.”

Ripken says that central to his longevity
has been his love for the job. “That’s key to
success in anything,” he says. “Find what
you enjoy, then showing up to do it isn’t
anything special.”

Don Yaeger is a four-time New York Times bestselling
author, longtime
Sports Illustrated writer
and award-winning motivational speaker.