In 21 seasons playing major league baseball, Cal Ripken Jr. never pitched in a game, but he’s getting plenty of action in that position these days.
Ripken spent a sizable chunk of a muggy afternoon in San Antonio on Tuesday pitching squishy balls to kids at the Eastside branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Antonio.
They played on Harvey E. Najim Field, a new $1.1 million field in Wheatley Heights built with the help of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which Cal Ripken Jr. helped start in 2001 to honor his late father. It is the 83rd such field the foundation has helped build around the country. Ripken is scheduled to unveil a field in Austin on Wednesday.
The younger Ripken was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 following a career in which he played 3,001 games for the Baltimore Orioles, including a record 2,632 consecutive games. He was a shortstop or third baseman in most of them.
None of the children, who ranged in age from 6 through 18, on hand Tuesday ever saw him play. But they were thrilled to belt pitches from him into the outfield and run the bases as he playfully pelted some with other soft balls.
“If we get them out there on this field doing these types of things, they’re not doing something else that might lead them in the wrong direction,” Ripken said.
Angie Mock, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of San Antonio, said 12 donors combined to fund the field, which is covered with synthetic grass turf. Construction began in March 2018 and the field began being used by the Boys & Girls Club in August.
The field is part of a larger $1.6 million project that also included a volleyball and basketball court, and a walking trail.
Among the donors was former San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan, said Steve Salem, president and CEO of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. The Baseball Tomorrow Fund, a joint initiative between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to promote and support youth participation in the sport, also contributed money.
“It’s almost too hard to describe what this means because there is nothing like this on the East Side of San Antonio, nothing,” Mock said. “In fact, what made me, as CEO, so excited about this project and the reason why I got behind it is not only was this going to be the best outdoor park for kids on the East side, it rivals anything on the North Side or any other part of town.
“That’s what I think kids on the East Side deserve.”
The field includes a scoreboard in right field and an expansive outfield big enough for soccer or flag football games. Ripken said he prefers to see kids using it to play baseball, but he’s just happy to help provide a safe space where they can play.
“It’s always cool to see the concept,” Ripken said. “It’s always cool to raise the money and get everybody in the community [feeling] really good about it, but the best part is once you open the park and once you see the finished product and to see how the kids really enjoy it.”
The park will serve kids in the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Antonio from all over the city, approximately 9,000 members, Mock said.
Kevin Shandy grew up on the East Side attending the Boys & Girls Club, where he now serves as branch director. He watched Ripken play with dozens of kids he sees almost every day.
“This field really exposes our kids to a top-notch, high-level experience,” Shandy said. “We’ve had baseball here and there, but to be able to play on this type of field just really opens up their horizons.
“To play on this type of field [in the past] we would have to go to another side of town, I would believe.”
Mock said the Boys & Girls Clubs has secured a grant from the John L. Santikos Foundation to fund construction of a concession stand and equipment room just behind the first base dugout.
Salem said the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation generally asks a community to raise the first $500,000 of each project and the foundation raises the rest. He said because of the foundation’s relationships and history of building parks, its partners end up getting fields built for approximately $1 million when the cost would normally be $1.25 million or more.
“So not only are we raising a lot of money and contributing a lot of money, we’re also passing through a discount,” Salem said. “When we started doing these fields, no one believed us. No one believed we could do what we said we could do. It makes us feel great.”