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Only one guy has put a bigger hurt on Little League Baseball in recent times than did Danny Almonte, last year’s ageless wonder.
That would be Cal Ripken Jr.
Ripken doesn’t have the resume of a Little League adversary. As a preteen, Ripken played ball with the West Asheville (N.C.) Little League, where in 1973 he was—if you can believe this—an all-star. In 1996, a year after he broke Lou Gehrig’s Iron Man streak and reserved himself a spot in the big boys’ Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Ripken was inducted into the national Little League Hall of Excellence. His Little League bio calls Ripken “one of the finest gentlemen in the game.”
But these days, words other than “gentleman” are surely being tossed around Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., whenever Cal’s name comes up. “Traitor,” for example.
“Yeah, here in Little League we now have to root against Cal Ripken—the same Cal Ripken who played Little League,” says Grumpy Vitale, the incredibly bubbly president of the Arlington Little League.
The source of whatever displeasure Vitale and other Little Leaguers feel for Ripken could be gleaned on any given Saturday this spring at Barcroft Park, a multidiamond complex in Arlington. Barcroft’s Field 1 has for years been where squads from Arlington Little League match up against one another. All the games on Field 2 these days, meanwhile, are for kids playing in a rival confederation, the county’s fledgling Cal Ripken League.
In a ceremony at Camden Yards in July 1999, the then-Orioles third baseman announced he had formed a partnership with the Babe Ruth League, a New Jersey-based youth-sports union. As part of that agreement, the Babe Ruth League’s 12-and-under divisions, formerly known as the Bambino League, would be renamed the Cal Ripken League. John Maroon, a spokesperson for Ripken, says the player didn’t ask for or receive any money for the use of his name.
“He just wants to grow the game,” Maroon says.
Historically, the Bambino League didn’t pose much of a threat to Little League, which, with nearly 3 million kids playing in more than 100 countries, calls itself the largest youth-sports organization in the world. The total Bambino League enrollment at the time of the name switch was less than one-sixth as large as Little League’s.
After announcing the partnership, Ripken told a Business Week reporter that he had no intention of becoming a foe of Little League. And Maroon says that still holds.
“Had Little League come to Cal [in 1999] with this type of offer, then that’s something that he would have looked at,” Maroon says. “But Babe Ruth approached Cal first.”
But now that they’ve got him, Babe Ruth League loyalists clearly hope that the playing field with its more established rival will be leveled out. And from what’s going on on Arlington ballfields, it looks as if they’re getting their wish.
While most cities and counties have given monopolies on field usage to either Little League or the Ripken League, Arlington is that rare jurisdiction that has both leagues competing for the same pool of grammar-school bodies. And with Ripken on the other side, Little League appears to be getting crushed here.
“The Cal Ripken name has been very good for us,” says Charlie Binns, president of the Arlington Babe Ruth League. “All the time, I have parents telling me and kids telling me that the reason they went with us [instead of Arlington Little League] is because of the Cal Ripken name. That name carries a lot of weight.”
County records back up Binns’ boasts. Kevin Springer, Arlington’s liaison with youth-sports leagues, is in charge of assigning fields to the opposing baseball confederations. The Ripken League gives him much more work these days: Springer says there are now nearly 1,500 players on 107 Ripken League teams registered in Arlington; the local Little League filed papers for just 625 kids on but 45 squads. The Bambino League was already on top in Arlington before the name change, but Springer estimates that it has picked up 15 more teams in the past two years.
Arlington Little League officials worry that the gap may grow even wider in coming years and point to some recent changes in the Ripken League bylaws that they say show the opposition is playing hardball. The Arlington Little League only accepts players aged 5 to 12 years old. In its first two years, the Ripken League had the exact same age parameters as its rival. But before this season, the Ripken League created a new division for 4-year-olds. That bracket, called Blastball, has the kids swinging a padded bat at a stationary padded ball, then running to the one base in the game. That base emits a honking sound when stomped on.
“This isn’t even anything close to baseball,” says Vitale.
But it isn’t Blastball’s lack of resemblance to what’s played at Yankee Stadium that has her crying foul. Vitale says the new 4-year-olds option gives the Ripken League a decided advantage in recruiting troops for the county’s youth-baseball war.
“For years, I’ve heard from parents whose children are barely out of diapers who want to sign them up to play Little League,” she says. “I have to turn them away. There really are a whole lot of parents who just can’t wait for their kids to turn 5 years old so they can get them on a team and get them involved in the ‘great American pastime.’ But I have to follow the rules from Little League’s national office, and those rules say I can’t take anybody less than 5 years old. Now, the Cal Ripken League is taking the 4-year-olds, and that gives them a better chance to hang onto those kids when they get older.”
Vitale adds that, although she doesn’t “like the idea of signing up 4-year-olds,” if the rules permitted her to, she might consider starting a Blastball division “to stay competitive.”
And though she’s not overjoyed with the way the youth-baseball pendulum seems to be swinging in Arlington, Vitale thinks that the two leagues won’t have trouble staying afloat or maintaining a respectful co-existence in the county—just as they did before Ripken came along.
“I guess I just think things would be a whole lot easier for everybody if there was only one league,” she says. “There’s only so much grass in Arlington.”
Perhaps Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) was on that same page last October, when he introduced a resolution in the U.S. Senate commending Ripken for his work with “the Cal Ripken Little League.” It passed without opposition. —Dave McKenna