If it weren't for the seamless display of Cal Ripken photos on the walls, you easily could mistake the Tufton Group's Lutherville offices for any of the actuaries, accountants or small businesses leasing space in the unremarkable, red-brick office building.
But this is the headquarters of "Cal Inc.," the marketing arm of one of baseball's best throwing arms. It is here that the All-Star's image is guarded, his endorsements are sold and his public relations and charitable activities are coordinated.
This is even where the player, in an annual preseason rite of spring, spends two days doing nothing but signing baseballs, which then are sold for $80.
Founded in 1992 by Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, the Tufton Group is one of a growing number of sports marketing firms established to coordinate the off-field activities of individual athletes. Earnings from such work often can eclipse the paycheck an athlete receives from his team, although not in Ripken's case. In recent years, he has earned well under $1 million from commercial contracts, and $6 million from the Orioles.
Named for the Baltimore County region where Ripken lives, the Tufton Group is run by Ira S. Rainess, the firm's 28-year-old general counsel and chief operating officer, and a pair of full-time assistants. Ripken, a vice president of Tufton, also maintains an office here, as does his wife, Kelly, and her father, Bob Geer, who operate the charitable Kelly and Cal Ripken Jr. Foundation.
Ripken never has been a particularly hot commodity on Madison Avenue, where more flamboyant athletes dominate the endorsement business. But interest -- and activity at the Tufton Group -- has picked up as he closes in on Lou Gehrig's record, becoming the embodiment of the American work ethic.
"I'm taking a very conservative approach to Cal's licensing. We don't want to overdo it," said Rainess, who estimates getting up to 50 proposals a day this year for various marketing schemes associated with Ripken. He rejects 80 percent, he said.
Still, Ripken is warming up to major deals. Yesterday, at a Camden Yards news conference, Ripken donned a baseball cap embroidered with the Chevrolet logo and announced he is becoming a national spokesman for Chevy trucks.
Many items are chosen . . .
Shoe manufacturer Nike is building a TV advertisement around Ripken. It also will update its downtown billboard featuring the Orioles shortstop. The new caption will read: "Death. Taxes. Cal Ripken Jr."
Rainess' spacious office, carpeted in Camden green, is cluttered with proposed and actual items of Ripken-mania. There is a mock-up of a Wheaties box, on which Ripken will appear (the player's name -- spelled "Ripkin" -- will be corrected, Rainess said). A set of cartoonish, bouncing-head figurines includes Ripken with a number of other baseball luminaries, and there is a rack of baseball bats.
So far this year, there has been a Burger King promotion featuring commemorative balls with Ripken's image and a limited edition poster. Phone customers soon will be able to pay for calls through Ripken cards issued by long-distance carriers.
Also coming: the "Hands of Gold" plaque, featuring the imprint of Ripken's hands.
. . . and rejected
Then there's the proposed Home Plate plate. The white, plastic tray, about 1 foot by 1 1/2 feet and shaped like home plate, features an inset for a ball and is designed for fans to hold in their laps while eating at the ballpark or at home. The "your name here" on the ball, however, is unlikely to be replaced by Ripken, because the Tufton Group has rejected the offer.
Also rejected: a commemorative beer mug. Ripken, a spokesman for the region's milk producers, doesn't want to promote alcohol or tobacco. Ripken said he doesn't want to get involved with products he doesn't believe in or be cast in a role he's uncomfortable with -- such as a hard-sell TV ad.
"I have to like it and believe in it," Ripken said. "I try to never forget who I am or what I am -- I'm a baseball player."
Such selectivity inevitably means saying no to new ideas and ending relationships already under way. The Cal Bar candy bar, once one of the hottest-selling products of Morley Candy Makers, a company that arms legions of school kids raising funds for nonprofits, was not renewed.
"We just didn't see eye-to-eye on a couple of things," said Morley director of fund-raising Ron Kenjorski.
"Morley is not Coca-Cola. We're in a niche market and can't give away the house," he said.
Ken Brenner, president of Brenner Classic Moments, a New Jersey company that markets sports art, said Tufton could be tough to bargain with, but was fair and honest. Brenner is distributing a limited edition Ripken poster by 18-year-old artist James Fiorentino, whose work is the focus of the company's work.
"They [Tufton] are absolutely a class act. As you know, a lot of the other agents are difficult. They aren't always as professional as they should be, and their marketing skills aren't always what they should be," Brenner said.