Ripken's Pitch Limit

June 20, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

He's about to break one of sport's most remarkable records, but that doesn't mean Cal Ripken is headed for the hall of fame of commercial endorsements.

The venerable Orioles shortstop and demure milk pitchman is attracting new attention from advertisers -- such as Wheaties, on whose box he may appear this summer -- as he closes in on Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.

But he's not likely to knock Michael Jordan into commercial retirement. Although Mr. Ripken has much of what companies want in a spokesman, from blue eyes to a wholesome image, his commercial appeal is limited by baseball's anemic popularity and his own lack of sizzle, according to experts.

"He's going to get his due. But for anyone to expect he is going to have 20 offers, it isn't going to happen," said Marty Blackman, head of Blackman & Raber, a New York firm that matches advertisers with sports figures.

Mr. Blackman sees Mr. Ripken fitting more into the Joe DiMaggio mold, in which he finds success selling products to mature audiences after he leaves baseball. Mr. Ripken's unflashy style and image of durability is more suited to the world of business machines and pain relievers than youth-oriented consumer goods most often associated with sports stars.

"Certainly, he's going to do very well. But the expectation of the public that, whammo, as soon as he breaks the record he'll be everywhere isn't so," Mr. Blackman said. "Ripken will get his money from Madison Avenue, but it will be over the years."

Mr. Ripken is also selective about the endorsements he accepts, preferring long-term relationships and products consistent with his tastes and family-man image, said Ira S. Rainess, general counsel for the Tufton Group, a marketing group formed by Mr. Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, to handle the player's endorsement business.

Just because we haven't exposed ourselves like Ken Griffey Jr. [of the Seattle Mariners] or Frank Thomas [of the Chicago White Sox] doesn't mean we haven't had the offers," Mr. Rainess said.

The game's labor dispute has hurt baseball, but provided some opportunities for Mr. Ripken, he said. The shortened season means Mr. Ripken probably will not have to share the spotlight with players threatening single-season records.

And Mr. Ripken's quiet devotion to duty is just the tonic baseball needs, prompting a recent call from the commissioner's office about some national promotions.

"We're taking things very slowly," Mr. Rainess said.

That has been Mr. Ripken's style since he was named Rookie of the Year in 1982, then MVP the next season. The makers of Jockey underwear approached Mr. Ripken for an ad, similar to the ones that put a somewhat revealed Jim Palmer into millions of homes. But Mr. Ripken wasn't comfortable with it.

"Cal isn't Jim Palmer, and for Cal's long-term image, Cal is more milk than underwear," Mr. Rainess said.

Mr. Ripken wants to align himself with companies and products he likes and that have a reputation for quality and a commitment to philanthropy, Mr. Rainess said. The work cannot interfere with his day job -- baseball -- and should cast him in a soft-sell role, rather than as a salesman.

For example, Mr. Ripken turned down an offer to do a series of Advil ads like those of retired pitcher Nolan Ryan because of the time commitment and tenor, Mr. Rainess said.

More suitable were the spots he is appearing in for Franklin Sports batting gloves, produced in the off-season. Mr. Ripken doesn't specifically say "buy this product," but suggests the gloves have contributed to his success, Mr. Rainess said.

The spots also reveal a seldom-seen whimsical side of Mr. Ripken, when the player, appearing with San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds, puts on an earring and asks Mr. Bonds, "What do you think my dad will say?"

Ripken's other contracts include regional milk and Coke distributors, Nike, Esskay meats, Adventure World, PowerAde athletic drink and a Burger King photo book coming out this fall. New deals will be announced this summer, Rainess said.

"I don't know if he could be Michael Jordan, but clearly he could be out there to a large degree. He's very selective. Primarily, Cal's a baseball player," Mr. Rainess said.

Mr. Ripken's annual endorsement income runs less than $1 million, a fraction of the $6 million he gets for playing shortstop and puny when compared with the estimated $35 million that Mr. Jordan, the King of Commercials, earns in endorsements. But Mr. Ripken also gets some non-monetary compensation, such as Adventure World tickets he distributes to needy kids, which he values more than cash, Mr. Rainess said.

Despite the recent interest, Mr. Ripken falls well back into third place among baseball players for his endorsements, behind Mr. Griffey and Mr. Thomas, according to most estimates. And two baseball players seems to satisfy Madison Avenue.

"Baseball has really suffered more than we had expected," said David Burns, founder of the Chicago-based Burns Sports Celebrity Service.

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