June 25, 2014

Cal Ripken, Jr. recalls friend Tony Gwynn as he christens new ballpark in Independence

The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, the Royals, Royals Charities and Variety Children’s Charity of Greater Kansas City have teamed up to build two new “adaptive” ball fields. On Wednesday, Ripken was here to officially open the park in Independence.

Lorenzo Cain will be in the Royals’ outfield Wednesday night, but on this afternoon in Independence, he is a prop.

He sets up a hitting tee as child after child either motors, walks or wheels herself up to the plate. These youngsters are finally able to play baseball, just like any other kids.

A boy in a wheelchair, coincidentally also named Cain, scores. The announcer cheers into the microphone by the first base dugout: “Good job, Cain!”

Lorenzo Cain smiles and playfully raises his fists. “Thank you, thank you,” he laughs. Then he’s back to setting up the tee for the next batter.

This is about the kids.

The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, the Royals, Royals Charities and Variety Children’s Charity of Greater Kansas City teamed up to build two new “adaptive” ball fields, using remaining profits from the 2012 Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium.

The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation is dedicated to building at least 50 parks across America by 2016. This one, in McCoy Park, and another just like it in Olathe, are Nos. 20 and 21.

Tony Gwynn would have loved this, Cal Ripken, Jr. thinks, surmising the scene. Ripken’s dad, Cal Ripken, Sr., would’ve, too.

A 19-time All-Star and Hall of Famer with the Baltimore Orioles, the younger Ripken watched with satisfaction as approximately 40 kids with various mental or physical disabilities christened the new diamond.

“My world was the baseball world,” Ripken says. “Dad taught us that.”

The sound of gravel crunching beneath their feet muffled their tears, but just barely.

Some of the parents in attendance were told by doctors that their children would never again play, walk or talk. Baseball has shown them otherwise.

The fundamental difference between a regular baseball field and an adaptive one is simple. The Independence Ability Field is made mostly of rubber, so it’s accessible to wheelchairs or crutches.

But the most important thing about any baseball field is what happens on top of it, and what happens because of it.

“A kid’s smiley face,” Ripken said. “I used to get a kick, a jolt, out of when a kid would ask for my autograph. And then once they got the autograph, their eyes would widen and brighten up.

“In this application, seeing the kids get a chance to play on the field for the first time and understand the joy of baseball ... It’s really in the kids’ faces, for me.”

If Ripken’s old friend Gwynn were here, watching those kids’ faces light up, he would “definitely try to hide someplace, get out of the way,” Ripken said.

Gwynn, a Hall of Famer and one of Ripken’s true peers during and after his own 20-year career with the San Diego Padres, died June 16 at 54 following a battle with oral cancer.

“He’d say, ‘This is for you guys to enjoy,’ ” Ripken said. “That was his joy. That, ‘It’s not about me.’ ”

As he recalls his friend, some of Ripken’s fondest memories with Gwynn briefly flicker in his mind. Their last All-Star Game together in Seattle in 2001. Their trip into the Hall of Fame. The six months they spent together leading up to their induction.

Their trip to Japan together in 1996, when they sat in the backs of buses talking about the game and life, the two inevitably intertwined.

“One of the great traits of Tony (was) that he’s very confident but he’s also one of the most humble people I’d ever been around,” Ripken says. Just as the words escape his mouth, fireworks boom overhead. Eyes gaze up and cheers ring from all around.

And so Ripken Jr. is here in Kansas City, opening baseball’s gates to a new generation, enabling them to be flooded with the joy, confidence and life lessons that the game will inevitably bring them.

Just as Dad and Tony would’ve wanted it.

Later Wednesday night, Ripken threw out the first pitch at Kauffman as the Royals played host to the Dodgers.

“What will be going through my mind?” Ripken wondered earlier. “Whether I can make it in the air or not. Hopefully I get a chance to warm up a minute. It’s always fun to be back down on the field.

“I always had great memories of Kansas City, period” he added. “It’s a great place to come and play.”

Moments later, Cain would trot out to centerfield. His young pal, Bryce Pinter, wasn’t by his side like he was earlier in the day, but the Royals outfielder was probably thinking of him and the other kids he’d met that afternoon.

“Just to come out here and see these kids’ faces light up,” Cain said, “it’s a privilege to come out here for me. It’s always fun. We had a blast today.”

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