Sparkling so naturally on the diamond, Cal Ripken Jr. and Jennie Finch share so much in common with their respective careers in baseball and softball.
The two special guests Tuesday afternoon at the tournament park he owns in Myrtle Beach, The Ripken Experience, spoke about the sport’s value in connecting with youth, and with fans locally, nationwide and globally. Fielding questions from chairs on a sunny ball field, they each detailed how growing up in nurturing families, with their mother’s vital, special touch, helped set their base lines for lives in ball.
A two-time Olympian with a gold medal from 2004, Finch grew up with two older brothers playing baseball. She got into softball when growing up in California, where the family had season tickets to Los Angeles Dodgers games. With a “die-hard” fan in her mom, Finch called her “the backbone.” Her journey in softball begun before age 10. She also helped pitch the University of Arizona to a national title in 2001.
Ripken, a Baseball Hall of Fame infielder who played all 21 Major League years with the Baltimore Orioles in his home state — including a record 2,632 consecutive games — said baseball occupied constant conversation in his household all day long and at the dinner table. With his late father, Cal Ripken Sr., at work, and so much on the road, during 37 years with the Orioles — as a player, coach and manager — Ripken Jr. also gave his “backbone” credit to his mother, who never compounded childhood pressure, but instead comforted him with her routine of watching from a chair she would set up “down the left field line.”
With brother Billy Ripken having spent 12 seasons in the majors and son Ryan Ripken — a third generation in the Orioles’ organization — set to play for the Aberdeen (Md.) IronBirds short-season-A affiliate in the New York-Penn League this summer, Cal Ripken Jr. said he understands the value of reminding parents who cheer on their youth. That entails letting them develop the right skills for use athletically, and off the field, which together, Finch said, build “a journey” for life.
In light of the higher TV ratings as the Chicago Cubs rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series in November, and college and professional softball gaining traction on network TV, Finch, who also played National Pro Fastpitch softball, said she’s “thrilled” by the extended exposure of America’s pastime.
Ripken, lending his voice for color on TBS game telecasts in this decade, thought back to his Major League breakthrough in the early 1980s, when weekly games and some local coverage gave fans their lone TV outlet to see their favorite teams. He said the high-tech access today gives fans and aspiring players in-depth ways to “see how shortstops and third basemen make plays, and hitters hit,” all the while giving “you ideas” on improving.
Earning a spot in the daily roundups of “Top 10 plays” for which ESPN stays well known, results, Ripken said, not from better gloves or throws, but applying more “creativity” on the diamond.
With the multicultural bridging that baseball and softball continue making worldwide, Finch said competitive softball afforded her the ticket to see the United States and the world, with trips to play in lands with different traditions and cultures, and see other “styles of play.” Ripken said baseball fans in Japan reflect their own fervor for the game. He and Finch also agreed that the field makes room for players in all sizes, shapes, strength levels and skill sets.
Asked for the greatest attribute each wants to espouse, Ripken stressed “work ethic,” how “hard work,” proving “how good you are,” can “take you places.”
Finch said she see keys in “consistency, through good and bad times,” and with heart and devotion as a person, “being the same player every day.”