After playing major-league baseball for 33 years, Cal and Bill Ripken are throwing the game they love some curveballs. They now rank among the most prominent boosters behind a campaign aimed at changing the way baseball is taught.
The brothers opened the Ripken Baseball Academy in Baltimore last year, with the goal of increasing baseball participation among youths. Their gospel is simple: Teach parents and coaches to stop wrecking kids' games and start making baseball fun again, leading more kids to play the game longer.
"What happens after two teams of 10-year-olds play?" asks Bill Ripken, who spent a dozen years in the major leagues with teams such as the Baltimore Orioles and the Texas Rangers. "The winner celebrates while the losing team walks down the foul line and gathers in a huddle, where the coach goes over everything that went wrong. Then the kid gets in the car for a long, quiet 15-minute drive home. That's not fun for anybody."
Instead, the Ripkens and other industry experts offer alternatives. Gather both teams after a game and have the kids run the bases as a quick, fun way of obliterating the final score.
Making practice time livelier is another Ripken baseball technique that appeals to some players and coaches. Dan Thomas, a US Department of Defense worker in Fredricksburg, Va., coaches a 9- and 10-year-old team that includes his son, Justin. The Thomases were part of a group that included eight players and eight parent-coaches attending a Ripken camp last spring.
"I was very impressed because they make it fun and they keep it fast-paced," says Mr. Thomas. "You don't have one kid doing something while 10 others stand around bored watching him. It's always moving and keeping the kids interested."
Thomas says Bill Ripken took part in some of the sessions, bringing a boisterous, enthusiastic ambience with him. "The kids really wanted to do well for him and they liked him a lot," Thomas says. "He kept it fun, rolling all over the ground and really putting his heart into it."
Since 1990, participation in baseball among those ages 6 and older has plummeted 33 percent, to 10.9 million, according to American Sports Data Inc. Participation in Little League Baseball has also fallen.
Youth sports experts across the US cite lack of fun as the top reason young players dump baseball, typically when they turn 12 or 13. Overzealous competition and relentless schedules - many elite youth teams play 60 or 70 games a season - ratchet up the pressure and reduce the joy.
The phenomenon of burned-out kids exists in other sports, but is felt most acutely in baseball, says Jim Thompson, founder of the nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance. Baseball's slower pace, he suggests, may increase scrutiny on the individual.
"Bad coaching intensifies all of this," Mr. Thompson says. "And bad coaching often means paying more attention to winning rather than teaching life lessons. You can win pee-wee baseball games by taking walks and running the bases. But that's not baseball, it's a track meet."
And it packs on the pressure for a 7-year-old struggling to learn the game. "You can't teach life lessons if kids quit," Thompson says.
At the Ripken academy, instruction is delivered in a series of weekend and week-long sessions, held throughout the spring and summer. Costs range from $300 to $995, and the Ripken brothers often participate in the instruction. (Bill teaches at every session.) Most of the teaching takes place on the field, but there are sit-down talks where rules and concepts are discussed.
Separate coaches' clinics are also important, says academy spokesman John Maroon, because "we've always believed that by educating one coach you can affect 15 or more kids." Last fall and winter, the Ripken brothers held several day-long coaches' seminars across the country. Bill Ripken says youth coaches - almost always parent volunteers - often bring bad methods to their well-meaning roles. They pile on information, often without context, and focus on wins at the expense of instruction and learning.
Adding such star power and common sense, has invigorated reform-minded youth sports stewards. At the National Alliance for Youth Sports, CEO Fred Engh has met with Cal Ripken Jr. in recent months and come away impressed. The two organizations are discussing international collaborations, including test programs in poor countries without any existing organized sports leagues.
"Cal understands the need to change the culture across the country," says Mr. Engh, whose nonprofit group has set up a system of training coaches and parents in many youth leagues.
Those in the trenches don't expect an overnight remedy, but they are heartened by an increased focus on finding solutions rather than just outlining the familiar examples of coaches and parents who go overboard.
While the extreme cases, such as occasional brawls among parents and coaches, grab headlines, the bigger challenge is educating the parents and coaches who stir up trouble with their good intentions.
In Broward County, Fla., for example, the local recreational league has worked on a regular basis with Engh's organization to train coaches and parents in sportsmanship and behavior. Participation in baseball and softball has been steady at 1,000 for several years.
"Setting an example is the biggest lesson any sport offers," says Jeff Barr, a superviser at the Florida rec league. "My belief is that you have to reiterate it to your parents and coaches over and over. Otherwise, people tend to lose focus."