Cal Inc.

The Iron Man's baseball empire is earning millions and may lead to him owning a piece of the O's

September 04, 2005|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The rookie Cal Ripken Jr., sitting at the back of the team bus, had an unusual question for the seasoned major-league players: What were they going to do after baseball?

At 22, the Harford County native was already wondering what his own answer would be. He had cut a deal to have the Orioles pay for college if he didn't last in the majors, but what really fueled his curiosity was the thought that even stars retired with half their lives ahead of them.

"The way baseball is, if you're smart with your money and you make a lot of money, you have choices ... at the end of your career," Ripken says now, just shy of a decade since playing in his record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game.

"But still, the fact is, what are you going to do? How are you going to feel good about yourself? What contributions can you make? ...

"That," he said, "was always on my mind."

It's why he's busier now, four years after retirement, than he ever was as a shortstop.

As chief executive of Ripken Baseball Group, the 45-year-old multimillionaire leads a rapidly expanding baseball empire that boasts two minor-league ball teams, with a goal of owning 10 in a decade.

The empire also includes major-league-quality fields for young athletes in Aberdeen, with another complex under construction in South Carolina; books about playing baseball "the Ripken Way," and youth sports equipment with his name on it.

Ripken's ventures are a symbiotic mix of profit and charity, the two so intertwined that almost all the companies he endorses also support his nonprofit efforts.

He is carefully using his fame and good-guy reputation to strike highly focused deals on his terms, which often involve getting other people to help pay for his projects.

"When he played shortstop, he always positioned himself right," said Joe Geier of Geier Financial Group in Ellicott City, which handles the personal finances of Ripken and other baseball players. "To me, that's how he is in business."

Ripken's Baltimore County-based company is owned with another retired major leaguer, his brother Bill. It produces $15 million in revenue a year and several million in profits. By comparison, his last contract as an Oriole was worth a little more than $6 million.

Professional endorsers are a dime a dozen, but sports superstars who develop their own corporate concepts are not -- which is why Ripken stands out along with a few others, such as basketball icon Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who heads an urban revitalization development firm.

"It's a very rare fraternity of people who are parlaying their name into even bigger business opportunities," said David M. Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles. "A lot have tried. Few have really succeeded."

Ripken's touch hasn't always been golden: In 1999 he bought 10 percent of the Baltimore BayRunners men's basketball team; it folded the next year because others were hesitant to invest. He once planned to start a restaurant called Cal Ripken's 2131 Club; the idea went nowhere.

Since then, he's focused on what he knows.

"Even now, ... when I try to solve a problem, I will try to put it in a baseball scenario," he said in an interview during last month's Cal Ripken World Series, a championship for pre-teens held in Aberdeen. "That helps give me comfort and confidence."

Ripken's employees say he looks over income statements, runs meetings, tweaks the design of new fields. While preparing for construction of the baseball complex in Myrtle Beach, S.C., called the Ripken Experience, he put a model of the site in his office to slide paper cut-outs of the fields around, trying different fits.

For the reproduction of Boston's Fenway Park at Aberdeen, he had a novel idea: Make the tall left field wall -- the Green Monster -- double as a storage shed.

"He thinks about ... how can you use buildings and functional things to add to the aesthetics of the ballpark," said Chris Flannery, Ripken's chief operating officer.

He runs ideas and finances past an advisory board that includes Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and longtime agent Ron Shapiro. He dines regularly with Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who calls his former player "very imaginative and very thoughtful and very inquisitive." And he has the star power to schedule a chat with billionaire investor and baseball fan Warren E. Buffett.

"His approach is to know a lot of people," Angelos said. "He acquires knowledge through the normal process of socializing."

Ripken's youth baseball division grew out of clinics he taught with his namesake father and his brother Bill in the '90s. But his desire for a second career began to coalesce more fully in 1998, when the Detroit Tigers released his brother in midseason.

Bill Ripken needed a new direction. Cal suggested they meet while the Orioles were in Tampa Bay, Fla., to play the Devil Rays. Camped out in a hotel room, they laid the groundwork for a partnership.

"Youth baseball was a lot of that conversation," Bill Ripken recalls.

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