Cal Ripken Jr. sat down with ESPN Playbook on Tuesday afternoon to promote his third children’s book, “Wild Pitch,” a story about a young baseball player regaining his confidence after hitting another kid in the head with a pitch.
We also asked Ripken about the Orioles, instant replay, the Moneyball era, his playing days and much more in a wide-ranging interview.
The Orioles, despite winning 93 games last season, seem to be coming into this year as an underdog in the division. ESPN picked them to finish last in the division. Where do you stand on the O’s going into the year?
Well really, the whole division seems to be up for grabs. You can make a case for all the teams, even Boston, that they have a chance to win the division. But the Orioles came out of nowhere last year, and things kind of went too-good-to-be-true in some ways. There’s a reason why they won one-run games and extra-inning games -- Buck Showalter is fantastic at forming a bullpen and using a bullpen, which gives you a chance late in the game -- but I can’t think things would go exactly as they did last year. It was almost unreal.
29-9 in one-run games and undefeated in extra innings.
Yeah. But I think all that experience will help some of the younger guys. Manny Machado will have his feet on the ground more this year. I think the biggest thing is they have a lot of depth in their pitching staff. The hardest thing will be choosing the right five. Last year, if there was one issue that stood out for me, they had 12 different starting pitchers. They had a couple injuries and a different staff in the first half of the year and the second half. But they did discover some great talent along the way. [Chris] Tillman and [Miguel] Gonzalez really did a phenomenal job. So really the question is, what do you expect out of the starters? The bullpen is still going to be good and the nucleus of the club is going to be good. But it’s all in the starters that give you a chance to win.
The O’s run differential wasn’t congruent with a playoff team last year, and almost every advanced statistic suggests the team will regress to the mean this season. The Moneyball era with the Athletics began after your playing days, but what’s your opinion on baseball being so analytical now, and many teams relying on numbers as much as their own eyes?
They’re all tools. You have to maintain perspective. You’d be foolish not to consider what you see in some of the intangibles. It’s a mixture of the analysis of the stats and your knowledge of baseball. The run differential, if you look on paper you’d say there’s no way they finish that many games over .500. They won a lot of close one-run games.
So you have to ask yourself, why were they winning all these close games? Was that luck? No it’s not luck. Some of it’s a matter of confidence, but much of it is how your manager sets up his bullpen and puts them in a position to succeed. So far, I don’t think there are any numbers that track the number of times a reliever gets up in the bullpen, or how many days you connect the appearance on the field with the times you’re throwing in the bullpen. I haven’t seen that stat. Clubs keep track of that. It’s an internal statistic right now. But it would be good to evaluate that from afar.
At the World Baseball Classic, some MLB leaders are taking a closer look at instant replay and how to apply it next season. How far do you think the MLB should go with instant replay?
It’s a challenge in many ways, but I’m an advocate of using technology to get the calls right, especially in the playoffs. If you can integrate technology in a way that’s not intrusive to the game, I’m for it. I don’t think you need a machine to call balls and strikes, and you don’t necessarily need it on every bang-bang play. I don’t feel the need for anyone to throw out a red flag.
But because of the angles and the ability for instant replays, I am an advocate of having an umpire in the booth. Normally when something happens on the field, the natural course of business is to go out there and question the call. And then an argument ensues and time is taken up. While they’re questioning the call, why wouldn’t someone in the booth have a chance to look at the replays like everybody else does, and have the ability to communicate to the little huddle down there?
I remember a [Derek] Jeter play that was funny, when he took his hand off the bat and it hit the knob of the bat. They called it a hit by pitch, and he faked it like he got hit. I always thought in that situation, while [Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe] Maddon is arguing, there’s conclusive evidence if it hit him or not in the replay.
Everyone at home watching the broadcast knew it didn’t hit him.
A guy upstairs could buzz in and say, ‘Hey guys, I clearly saw it hit him on the replay.’ The fans don’t even have to know that’s occurring. The umpires all get together and then they say, ‘OK it didn’t hit him, so Jeter come on back here.’ So it doesn’t solve all the issues, but I really think if there was an umpire in the booth or in the box, it would help things out a lot. And the game itself wouldn’t be slowed down, because all of those breaks happen normally.
That’s the biggest thing. You don’t want the game slower than it already is. Young people especially are so accustomed to being engaged with technology all the time -- you even mentioned your son’s head is always in his phone. More breaks in baseball wouldn’t be good for the sport.
There’s a lot going on in a game, but the only question would be, would the managers argue more knowing they could get someone to look at the replay? There are some plays you don’t want to look at the replay. But there are some plays where human reaction says that call is wrong. Remember when Todd Helton came off the base so far? The umpire’s angle couldn’t see it, but the other umpires could clearly see it in an instant. A replay would’ve gotten that call right and the game would move on. It wouldn’t have been a lengthy argument and it wouldn’t have been someone getting thrown out of the game.
I think you’d be dumb not to use the technology you have. And there’s more technology than just instant replay. You can track the ball in so many different ways over the course of the field now. Even balls that graze off the foul pole or not -- technology can determine if a ball hit the pole or not.
People are worried about how far you go once you implement it. It can be a slippery slope. Nobody wants to automate balls and strikes, but a computer’s judgment of balls and strikes surpasses that of a human umpire.
I think the technology should be used to train the umpires and tell them if their strike zones were too big or not. It should be a training tool. But I don’t think it should ever determine balls or strikes, ever.
OK, five quick hitters for you. When’s the last time, if ever, you played Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball for the Sega Genesis?
[laughs] Oh man, I don’t know. When’s the last time? It’s still out there?
It came out in ’92.
Man, probably my own kid.
What did you think of the movie “Iron Man”? If you didn’t see it, was that a protest?
[laughs] I didn’t see it. And it wasn’t out of protest.
What’s the weirdest memory you have from your playing days?
I think the sensation in my last year, in Yankee Stadium, when the game ended in a tie. They called the game at 1-1 after almost 15 innings. It was very emotional because the season had just started again after 9/11. It was cold and windy, and after that we walked out of Yankee Stadium with a win, a loss and a tie. It was a weird feeling.
Was it the only tie in your 21 years?
I think we had a few ties where we had to go back and play the whole thing over. There were a few years I played 163 games. If it mattered in the season standings, we’d go back and play it.
Use one word to describe the relationship between you and your brother Bill.
Man. One word. Wow.
You can cheat if one word doesn’t cover it. It’s not a vocabulary test.
Maybe I can get to a word by describing what I mean. When I played with Billy, our communication was almost telepathic. As a double-play combination, you knew each other really well, you played the same way. There were many times where things would happen where you would need some info or need some feedback. If I had a crucial coverage to give and I got blocked out of the sign by the catcher or the batter, and I need to know what that information was, I’d look over at him in a panic and he’d give me the sign.
You guys had signals between the two of you?
No, he would recognize what happened and he’d know what my look was and he’d replace the sign. Whether the guy was running, pickoffs, there were things we’d tell each other just by looking at each other and knowing each other so well. Maybe, clairvoyant? [laughs]
Telepathic was a pretty good one.
Yeah, telepathic. We were on the same thought process all the time. That’s really cool when you’re playing and need to coordinate information.
What are the best and worst parts of retirement?
The worst part is the realization that you can’t play forever. I think physically you loved to be a kid and play forever. That’s the worst part. You have to grow up and give up the hold baseball has on you as a kid. I got to be a kid till 41.
The best part about it is you get time to do other things. The schedule consumes you as a baseball player. I had a chance to spend more time with my family and see them grow up. I didn’t get a chance to experience that because my dad was in baseball growing up.
And you get to do things like write books for children. Did this third book come from a personal memory of yours?
Some of the books have much deeper meaning, like the one I wrote about a kid having a hot head. Temper was a bad thing and you would do bad things with it, and I was able to learn, basically through my mom’s advice, to use that power of frustration to do positive things, to channel that feeling. But to me, when I hit somebody when I pitched I was never really affected by it. I rationalized it by saying they didn’t get out of the way very well. But it was never intentional, so I didn’t have that problem. But my confidence went up and down, and kids’ confidences are really fragile. Even big league players’ confidences are fragile. I wanted to deal with the issue of confidence, and we chose a pitcher’s perspective to do that.
A lot of former players are involved with baseball by coaching or working in the front office. Besides studio hosting, you’ve mostly been about the kids, through your organization and books and things like that. When did you know that helping children is how you wanted to use your platform?
The overarching thing is that I wanted to promote baseball. I loved the game as a kid and I love the positive influence you can have on kids as a big leaguer, to help them love the game and play the game. All of my movements after my retirement from baseball has been trying to get kids to play the game. There are different ways you can reach them. I really like the form of reaching them through a fictional book. I think the message can come in louder and clearer in the written form, through someone else’s story. It’s not intimidating to you because you’re not directly dealing with the issue. To me, if I had a mission, it would be to get more kids to play baseball and grow the sports through a grassroots level.