Ripken Foundation rapidly expands effort to build fields in economically distressed cities

Cal Ripken Jr. says before initiative, he never realized how many kids just need a safe place to play

  • Cal Ripken Jr., left, and his mother, Vi Ripken, participate in a news conference Tuesday at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards for The Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation to discuss a $30 million capital campaign for continued growth of its Youth Development Park initiative.
Cal Ripken Jr., left, and his mother, Vi Ripken, participate… (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun )
December 17, 2013|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Until his family's foundation started building youth athletic fields in economically distressed areas around the country, Cal Ripken Jr. had no idea just how many kids needed a place to play.

The Orioles great had already spent a good portion of his post-playing career teaching baseball to kids. They came to Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen by the thousands for clinics and tournaments.

But when the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation looked into building fields as a next step for its youth outreach, Ripken recognized a broader mission. Kids who lived in tough neighborhoods from Baltimore to Houston didn't necessarily need to learn baseball. They needed nice, safe fields on which to play.

Once the foundation had built a few fields, the requests came from all over. Ripken was "blown away" by the volume. "As we tried to help more and more kids, we really discovered a need," he said.

That's why the foundation announced the public portion of a $30 million fund-raising campaign on Tuesday. With 26 parks scheduled to be completed by the end of 2013, foundation officials say they can push the number to 50 within five years. They have already raised $18 million for the expanded effort and hope to finish the capital campaign by June.

With municipal budgets strained around the country, youth organizations can't rely on public funds to build parks. The lack of up-to-date playing space is an issue in Baltimore and countless other cities, with program coordinators saying they need the space before they can push kids into more positive activities.

"In this economy, in a lot of the large metro areas, the first departments affected by budgets cuts are the parks and recreation departments," said David James, director of Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, or RBI, initiative. "So the work the foundation is doing, coming in and building fields or renovating fields, has benefited a lot of our programs. … It's a big piece of the puzzle."

James said RBI has succeeded in reducing the cost of playing baseball for its 213,000 participants but said that only does so much good if the kids have no safe haven in which to play.

"As far as the need goes, it's unequivocal," said Richard November, a Richmond, Va., developer who helped the Ripkens build a field for the Boys and Girls Club there. "You see these kids light up with pride, because they've never had a first-class place to play in their lives."

The field in the Bainbridge section of Richmond has been open for two years.

Foundations will play an increasingly important role in building such facilities, said Jayne Miller, superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which recently worked with the Ripkens on two fields in economically stressed North Minneapolis.

"We could not have built those fields without the money we got from the Ripken Foundation and our other donors," Miller said, noting the growing urbanization of America's population and the ever-present budget strains.

Other cities with completed fields, which cost about $1 million each, include Houston, Bridgeport, Conn., and Harrisburg, Pa. In Baltimore, the foundation has worked on fields in Park Heights, Patterson Park and at the old site of Memorial Stadium.

"What we have found as we've been building these parks … we've gotten so many more calls from people saying, 'What do we need to do to get one of these?' And I mean from all over the country," said Ripken Foundation president Steve Salem. "A void is being filled that no one was filling. That's the only thing I can make out of the level of interest we're getting."

It's a problem familiar to Major League Baseball officials, who have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years trying to promote youth baseball in urban areas. With African-American representation in the major leagues hovering at about half what it was in the years immediately following integration, baseball officials have tried to create interest with RBI.

James said he's pleased with participation at the youth level but urged patience as observers wait for the next wave of African-American stars to sweep the majors.

He considers the Ripken Foundation a partner in the effort. But Ripken actually downplayed spreading the gospel of baseball as a motivation for the parks initiative. He noted that few of the fields are baseball-specific.

"It's not even really about promoting baseball," he said. "We use baseball because that can interest the kids. But in the end, it's just a hook to get their attention. … It's really just using sport, and in this case the field, to get them interested in something productive."

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