By Will Kimmey
September 23, 2002
White House photo by Paul Morse
WASHINGTON, D.C.–Cal Ripken served as baseball’s unofficial ambassador during his 21 seasons with the Orioles. A year after his retirement, he continues to carry the mantle.
Ripken’s approach focuses on building the game at the grassroots level. He has purchased a team in the short-season New York-Penn League, broken ground on a youth baseball training facility in Aberdeen, Md., and had Babe Ruth Baseball’s Bambino Division named after him in the last year. Ripken was at it again Sunday, this time with a tee ball game on the White House’s South Lawn.
“To me it’s the ultimate celebration of baseball,” Ripken said. “How great is it to come to the White House South Lawn and play? It’s a festive time and a celebration of baseball.”
President George W. Bush, a former Rangers owner, began the South Lawn Tee Ball Initiative last May in hopes of promoting the game and spurring its interest to people of all ages. He named Ripken the league’s honorary commissioner for this season.
Three games took place last year and three more this year, with Sunday’s contest between the Waynesboro, Va., Little League Challenger Division Sand Gnats and the East Brunswick, N.J., Babe Ruth Buddy Ball League Sluggers marking the final one of the 2002 season.
While the first two games of each season feature more traditional tee ball teams, the final contest has been reserved for competitors from the Challenger and Buddy Ball leagues, which feature mentally and physically disabled children. Players are accompanied on the field by Buddies or Pals, who offer support and help the players, who range in age from 6 to 18, when needed. Teams were selected to participate by the governing bodies of Little League and Babe Ruth baseball.
“I can’t explain it,” said East Brunswick manager Steve Onorato, whose son Danny played for the team. “To see how thrilled the kids were to be at the White House, to shake hands with the president.”
Ripken sat on the benches, talking with players and signing autographs during the game. Major leaguers Mark Prior (Cubs), Geoff Jenkins (Brewers), David Segui (Orioles) and Brady Anderson (former Oriole), who were invited by the White House to serve as first and third base coaches, did the same. ESPN’s Harold Reynolds served as the public-address announcer, introducing players and listing their favorite ballplayers, foods and movies while also offering encouragement.
No score was kept and no outs were recorded. Each team just batted through its order once and the game ended–and everyone involved was a winner. Following the game, players received an award from Bush and Ripken and each had his or her picture taken with the duo.
“I got to meet Cal Ripken,” East Brunswick player Craig Harris, 14, said. “He was very nice and I got his autograph. I’m the biggest hit at my school because of this.”
The excitement wasn’t limited to the players.
“It’s evident when you look at their faces and see the smiles,” Ripken said. “The award ceremony might have taken a little longer than in the other games, but the enjoyment and excitement was more.”
Ripken joked that he got involved in working with kids because he had retired, was available and needed a job. He also attributed it to his late father, Cal Ripken Sr.
“My father was happiest when he passed his wisdom on to kids,” Ripken said. “To see their eyes light up, the light bulbs go on in their heads, it’s so great. It’s very satisfying to give something back and do something positive.”
The event also showcased the mass participation baseball allows.
“In basketball, you need to be tall,” Ripken said. “In football, you need to be big. In baseball, it seems like all shapes and sizes can enjoy success. You just throw down some bases in a field, or the White House lawn, and have a good time.”