Cal Ripken’s Conundrum

I heard a story this week that I’m having trouble jibing with another story. Here’s the first one. A buddy of mine attended a charity event recently where Cal Ripken was the keynote speaker. Cal is one of my all-time favorite athletes in any sport. My buddy’s story did not disappoint. He said Cal was a perfect gentleman, told great stories, and spent as much time hanging out and signing autographs as the crowd desired. One of the stories Cal told from the podium that evening was about his latter years with the Orioles, as he neared retirement. He recounted how those teams had a young catcher. He apparently said that he knew the hitters so much better than the young catcher that he called the pitches from his shortstop position. He said he had a system worked out with the catcher, whereby he would use the position of his glove to signal what pitch he wanted and the location. OK, this makes perfect sense. I have no doubt that Cal knew the hitter’s tendencies far better than any rookie catcher. Only problem is, this story runs headlong into my other story.

My son, Christian, grew up playing travel baseball and high school baseball in Maryland. He was high school class of 2012. Likewise, Cal’s son, Ryan Ripken, grew up playing baseball in Maryland. Ryan was also high school class of 2012. Christian and Ryan played against each other numerous times over the years. One of my favorite Robertson v. Ripken games was spring training during their sophomore year when Christian’s school beat Ryan’s school down in South Carolina. There were literally 2 parents at the game, one for each team. Cal Ripken and me.

That's Christian playing second base and Ryan Ripken running on second base

That’s Christian playing second base and Ryan Ripken running on second base

But, the story that has me troubled took place when Ryan and Christian were playing travel ball, when they were both 14. I was the head coach of Christian’s travel team and we faced Ryan’s team in the state tournament. Like every other travel baseball coach of that age group, I called every pitch from the dugout. For the non-baseball fan, that means that after each pitch, the catcher looked into the dugout and by a series of hand motions on my face, I signaled fastball, curveball, etc. and the location of the pitch (in/out, up/down). Cal was at that game, just relaxing in a lawn chair like any other dad. Ryan’s team knocked us out of the tournament and, after the game,  I went over and asked Cal if he would come over and take some pictures with our team. Like the perfect gentleman he is, he agreed.

As we were walking around from their side of the field to ours, he turned to me and said, “Why do you call all the pitches from the dugout? Why don’t you let your catcher call the pitches?” I replied, “Well, the kid is a solid catcher, but he’s 14. He doesn’t know what pitch to call in each situation and he doesn’t pick up on hitter’s tendencies during the game.” Without missing a beat, Cal replied, “How is he ever going to learn how to do that if you keep doing it for him?” I almost cried. Here I was, walking casually across a baseball field with one of my biggest sports heroes and he’s telling me I’m not doing a good job coaching. Ouch. We took a bunch of pictures with Cal and our team and I never again called pitches for that catcher. Let the record show that the catcher is now playing college baseball.

But, here’s where I’m really struggling. Cal chastised me for calling pitches for a 14-year old because I was pretty sure I knew better than he did. He quite rightly, it would seem, pointed out that part of learning is doing, even if it means getting it wrong. But, when he had the opportunity to let a young catcher, a major league catcher, learn to do it himself, he didn’t. He called the pitches himself. Cal, if you’re reading my blog, help me out of this conundrum. I’ll still love you either way!

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About Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson is an amateur writer and professional provocateur
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7 Responses to Cal Ripken’s Conundrum

  1. BlueLoom says:

    Perhaps both stories are true. On Cal’s advice, you turned your young catcher loose so that he could learn from his own mistakes and improve as a player. But maybe no one had provided that opportunity for the rookie major league catcher, so that he came to the majors full of technical talent but still unable to call a game–and Cal realized that.

  2. Bill Miller says:

    The implications for your catcher missing some calls was a hit or even a loss in an environment where where winning really isn’t everything. I think the situation is much different in MLB. Cal’s new, young pitcher may have been the best they had in fielding and maybe hitting, two activities that no one else on the team can really help you with when a player is engaged in them. Perhaps, they wanted to let him hit and field but in calling pitches it was better to give him support because these guys get paid to win.

    • Bill, if you think winning isn’t everything in youth travel baseball, you haven’t attended a youth travel baseball game!

      • Bill Miller says:

        I didn’t say it wasn’t the #1 goal, I said it wasn’t everything. What about learning, sportsmanship?. Are these not secondary goals of the league and your coaching? I don’t know about college baseball coaches (can’t name even one) but the great college basketball coaches articulate other goals like losing with dignity while pursuing winning as the #1 goal. And if I’m wrong about travel baseball, then perhaps that is where Cal’s wisdom (and the difference b/w his comment and his actions in MLB) is being missed by you and other youth baseball coaches (at least in Cal’s mind). Ouch.

  3. Bill, the only thing being missed is my humor, by you! Double ouch!

    • Bill Miller says:

      Guilty. I thought you were serious about trying to understand Cal’s conundrum or inconsistency; otherwise, why call out your hero?

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