Baseball’s ‘Iron Man’ visits Methodist

FAYETTEVILLE — Sitting in a chair inside Huff Concert Hall at Methodist University on Tuesday night, Cal Ripken Jr. paused when Methodist President Ben Hancock asked him for advice on how students can best follow their dreams.

“I’m still too young to give that kind of advice,” Ripken joked to a near-capacity crowd in the 1,100-seat auditorium. “I always feel I’ve not lived long enough to actually give kids advice.”

But the 57-year-old’s accolades are enough to prove he’s more than qualified to provide guidance to college students — and everyone else.

Spending 21 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, Ripken earned the tag “Iron Man” for playing in 2,632 consecutive games, breaking New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig’s 56-year-old record of 2,130 games.

He earned two American League Most Valuable Player trophies, including one from the world champion 1983 season, a pair of Gold Gloves, and a plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y., after entering the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Accustomed to fielding ground balls at shortstop, Ripken offered his best attempt at fielding questions from Hancock and members of the audience during MU’s fourth annual Presidential Lecture Series.

After his quip, Ripken gave some words of wisdom to those in attendance, many of whom were donning Orioles jerseys and caps.

“Part of learning is experiencing,” he said. “So, you need the book stuff, you need the fundamentals. But you also need to experience things. I think sometimes we’re hesitant to experience things. Especially at this level when you’re a freshman or sophomore in college. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there a little bit. Find out what it is you like and don’t like.”

Ripken said he would often carry a quote by President Teddy Roosevelt in his briefcase that reads, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Ripken highlighted the quote during the speech portion of the event, pointing to it on the projector screen while he added his take on Roosevelt’s words.

“You can’t be great from the sidelines,” he said.

The Hall of Famer made a name for himself by not spending much time on the sidelines during his illustrious career. Over the years, Ripken has become synonymous with strength, character, perseverance and integrity.

Prior to taking questions, Ripken centered his short speech around eight traits that he has cited as keys to breaking his consecutive games streak. He highlighted conviction and consistency when talking about the streak, but said the other six traits — the right approach, strong will to succeed, passion, loving to compete, strength and life management — are equally important as it pertains to excelling on the field and in life.

“Because I did that, everybody automatically assumed I had this secret to longevity, to perseverance, to endurance,” Ripken said of the streak.

“And they’d come asking for it. ‘Hey Cal, how did you do it? What’s your secret?’ I would never know how to answer that question. I said, ‘I always kind of loved to play. It just happened.’”

Ripken stuck with that response until getting “an awful look” from New York Yankees great Derek Jeter on one occasion.

He then decided to compile the eight traits. It didn’t hurt that his jersey number happened to be No. 8.

“If I can do it, obviously, someone else can,” he said.

Ripken broke the “unbreakable” streak on Sept. 6, 1995 in Baltimore. He said that night was one of “two special moments in my career that are above all the other ones.” The moment came when Ripken took a lap — shaking hands and giving high-fives to fans — around Camden Yards following the fifth inning of the game.

“Everybody was clapping when the game got to the halfway point. I was kind of embarrassed, saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ That feeling of hearing 50,000 (people) clapping was really great,” Ripken recalled.

“I started looking in people’s eyes and started recognizing faces and names. … it became very personal. When I started the lap, I was thinking, ‘Let’s just get this finished.’ But then I started slowing down, thinking, ‘I don’t care if this game ever starts again.’ I had the chance to celebrate with my family. From a human, personal standpoint, that moment probably stands alone.”

Ripken said the other moment came when he caught the final out of the 1983 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. It would end up being Ripken’s one and only World Series title.

“That feeling of satisfaction, fulfillment and accomplishment was sky high,” he said. “It was way better than any feeling I’d ever had. … I wish I had the chance to do it more than once, but still, I know what that feels like.”

Now, Ripken is using the platform that baseball has provided him to help grow the game he loves at the grassroots level. After his playing career ended, he started this effort with the construction of a one-of-a-kind baseball complex in his hometown of Aberdeen, Md.

The Ripken Experience complex hosts players and teams from across the country for camps and tournaments during the spring, summer and fall.

Due to the success of the Aberdeen youth complex as a tournament destination and the desire to grow the game of baseball worldwide, Ripken opened The Ripken Experience complex in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

Ripken has always placed a strong focus on giving back to the community. In 2001, he and his family established the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation in memory of the family’s patriarch.

Ripken said it’s his way of staying “productive in life.”

Methodist baseball coach Tom Austin had the chance to spend some time with Ripken prior to the event. Austin has coached the Monarchs for 38 years and is a member of the 1,000-win club. Still, the veteran coach was in awe of Ripken on Tuesday.

“You just find out what a really good guy he is. He doesn’t ram the fact that he’s a Hall of Famer down your throat. He’s very down to earth, very easy to talk to,” Austin said.

“We went down to the field, took a picture with him, and he knelt down in the wet grass with us. It was just a really neat experience. It was great for Fayetteville and Methodist University, just a great event to have someone of that stature on campus.”

Matthias Carter, a former baseball standout at Purnell Swett, said meeting Ripken was a “priceless” experience. The sophomore shortstop — who wears No. 8 — was an honorable mention last season on the 2017 USA South all-conference squad.

“It’s a dream to meet an actual MLB player, and not just any MLB player, but a Hall of Famer,” Carter said. “He’s one of the best to ever do it. Gaining knowledge from him is going to help me out a lot in baseball and life.”

Methodist University
Cal Ripken Jr., left, visited Methodist University in Fayetteville on Tuesday, fielding questions from MU president Ben Hancock. The Hall of Famer is known as baseball’s "Iron Man" for setting the record of consecutive games played. University
Cal Ripken Jr., left, visited Methodist University in Fayetteville on Tuesday, fielding questions from MU president Ben Hancock. The Hall of Famer is known as baseball’s "Iron Man" for setting the record of consecutive games played.
Ripken tells students ‘to experience things’

By Rodd Baxley

Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.