By DAN GELSTON
AP Sports Writer
Cal Ripken and Cooperstown are connected again.
Ripken’s eponymous tournaments for youth baseball players have merged with Cooperstown All Star Village under a new agreement with the owners of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils.
Josh Harris and David Blitzer have become majority investors in the deal announced Wednesday that merged two of the leading youth baseball brands that combined to host more 15,000 teams and 250,000 participants last year. The Ripken Experience operates in Maryland, South Carolina and Tennessee and plans to open a location in 2023 in Kentucky. The All-Star Village, based in Oneonta, New York, hosts more than 10,000 players ages 10 to 12 each summer.
“We can maybe explore newer complexes in other parts of the country at a much faster rate than it was going,” Ripken said in a phone interview. “Our growth has really come along the last few years. When we started talking, it just became obvious, why kind of compete in the same space? Why don’t we merge because we’re very much alike.”
Harris and Blitzer spent an unspecified sum out of their family offices, rather than Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which has ownership stakes in professional sports teams and other entities.
The 1982 AL Rookie of the Year and 1983 AL MVP, Ripken spent his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles before retiring in 2001. He set a record by playing in 2,632 consecutive games and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.
The Ripken Experience and All-Star Village also pledged to grow inclusion efforts in baseball. Blitzer already was a minority owner with the Cleveland Guardians and he said the franchise would sponsor one underserved, Cleveland-area team to attend the All Star Village this season.
For the first time since 1950, shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier, no U.S.-born Black players played in the 2022 World Series between Houston and Philadelphia. Black players made up 7.2% of opening day rosters in 2022. That dipped from 7.6% the previous year and marked the lowest since study data was first collected in 1991, when 18% of MLB players were Black.
“We don’t go looking to go partner with Major League Baseball to find more athletes to play baseball,” Ripken said. “We just want to help kids.”
While the Ripken Experience serves more as host sites for existing tournament teams, Ripken said the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation was designed to assist at-risk youth programs in underserved areas. The foundation named for Ripken’s late father was founded in part to deter juvenile delinquency and by paring vulnerable youth with law enforcement mentors from local communities. Ripken called the program a sort of “outdoor classroom.”
“On the foundation side, we don’t look to make baseball players,” Ripken said. “We look to have changes in their lives and we think sports benefits everyone. We’re trying to use sports as that alternative to match people that care with kids that need guidance and some mentors.”
Harris, who has been linked as a possible candidate to buy the Washington Commanders, and Blitzer originally invested in Cooperstown All Star Village last year.
“By accelerating the growth of our youth baseball platform, we plan to not only enhance the quality and experience of Ripken Baseball and Cooperstown All Star Village, but also to expand its reach to bring Big League Experiences to significantly more young athletes, especially those who may have otherwise not had access,” Blitzer said.
Ripken Baseball, which includes vice president and former big leaguer Bill Ripken, Cal Jr.’s brother, also brings its youth sports experience to satellite locations through Ripken Select Tournaments.
“We do tournaments very well,” Cal Ripken said. “Looking into expanding into the rectangular fields was always part of our vision. It was happening slow. Now it gives an opportunity to really look at a whole complex, a bigger complex or including both diamonds and rectangles.”
Ripken is leaving ownership to the billionaires. Orioles chairman John Angelos said emphatically this week the team will not leave Baltimore — and Ripken is fine rooting for the Orioles from afar.
“When I first retired, I bleed orange and when we were going through trouble and rebuilding, I thought I could be helpful,” Ripken said. “I think it would be fun. I think I could help in the right way. But I don’t look at it in the same way as I looked at it 10 or 15 years ago. I’m 62. I’ve got a lot of energy in some other areas.”
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