Cal Ripken channels his energy on making life easier for kids

adell@bradenton.comMarch 25, 2014 

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Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. waves to fans as he watches an NBA basketball game between the Orlando Magic and the Washington Wizards in Orlando, Fla., Friday, March 14, 2014. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

JOHN RAOUX — AP

PORT CHARLOTTE -- Cal Ripken Jr. earned his nickname, "The Iron Man." He never shied away from those hard smashes that test the will of every third baseman, and his major-league record of playing in 2,632 consecutive games speaks for itself.

To the outside world, the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer was a man of strength who lived a charmed life.

No quite, he is quick to note.

His life internally and externally was far from smooth. He often was teased as a kid and didn't always handle his temper well. "I was bullied as a kid, and I was a hot head at times. I would have tantrums and sometimes throws bats," Ripken said. "But I had my mom to guide me through those times. She taught me how to channel my anger into doing something positive. She said the feeling of anger can be good, but what I was doing with it was not good. She got me to focus on doing things that would make me a better player."

Now 53, Ripken hasn't lost sight of the fact that not every child has a parent to guide them through the wilderness that kids often feel trapped in.

It's a reason he got into writing children's books.

His fourth book, "Squeeze Play," released this month, hits home with a story about overbearing parents. Ripken's previous three books were "Hot Head," a best seller; "Super Slugger" and "Wild Pitch." All were written with noted author and sports writer Kevin Cowherd.

"I've written some smaller kids books and always enjoyed a chance to deliver a message to kids. 'Squeeze Play' gave me the opportunity to deal with issues in more depth," Ripken said. "It is not about the bunt. It's about the pressure parents put on kids. I really wanted to address that issue because it's all around."

The book's main character is Corey, who loves baseball but is embarrassed by

his father's maniacal behavior during games.

"The first book was about a hot head, and a lot of that was me," Ripken said. "The second was about an oversized slugger that was teased. That wasn't me, but some of the stigma that goes with bullying and how alone it makes you feel has stayed with me. The third book ('Wild Pitch') was about a kid who lost his confidence after hitting a kid in the head."

Ripken has made spring training in March an opportunity to promote his book and was at a recent Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh game in Port Charlotte, where he couldn't help but admire how the success of the two small-market teams last year -- and the Rays over a long period of time.

"It's remarkable what they (Rays) have done. The organization has drafted well and developed well. Despite less resources, they continue to be a playoff-caliber team every year," Ripken said. "It proves success is about baseball expertise and not necessarily all the money you have. Big franchises still can erase mistakes or add depth, but the Rays model proves it's your baseball expertise that allows you to be competitive."

Ripken says don't discount Rays manager Joe Maddon or Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle, who guided the Pirates to their first winning season in two decades.

"From the outside world some of Joe's methods make people shake their heads, but you can't argue with the cohesive unit he puts out there," Ripken said. "He has the ability to take players who have a bad reputation and come and blossom. It's a wonderful tribute to his managerial style."

Ripken credits a lot of the Pirates success last year to Hurdle and general manager Neil Huntington, but notes they've only done it one year and they shouldn't assume anything for this season.

"There is leadership on the field in the form of the manager, but then there is the talent you assemble and drafting is the basis of your success," Ripken said. "Pittsburgh has done a good job with that and with key trades and pickups and taking a chance on some guys like (Francisco) Liriano. It is taking those sorts of risks and getting the most out of them."

The Pirates haven't reached the level of consistency that has marked the Rays. They are on the right track, but Ripken says successful longevity is something you never stop working on.

"What they did last year has got to feel good, but it doesn't mean you can just show up and make it happen again," Ripken said. "You have to work for it, but when you know you have a chance to win and you know you are good that is a good first step."

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