Interview with Bill Ripken

12 year MLB vet and MLB Network analyst Bill Ripken stops by to talk some baseball, breakdowns, and “Bill’s Blackboard”

What was the transition like going from player to analyst?

When I stopped playing, my brother Cal and I came up with the ideas of doing Ripken Baseball and the Minor League teams, so I was immediately ‘out of the uniform’ as far as an MLB organization was concerned. That went on for a period of time, and our former boss here at MLB Network, Tony Petitti- who’s now Major League Baseball’s COO – had seen me when I introduced Cal as Sportsman of the Year at the March of Dimes 24th Annual Sports Luncheon.

When MLB Network started, Tony sent the request that I should come up and at least entertain the idea of being an analyst. I came up and auditioned and Tony said ‘How’s 50 days sound?’ That way we could see if it was a fit. That was year one of MLB Network, and since then the shows have increased a little bit and it’s morphed into around 100 dates a year for the past seven years. I like my freedom with being able to work with amateur baseball and Ripken Baseball, but I also like being able to come up here 8-10 days a month and do my gig here as an analyst.

You look like you guys are having a blast when you’re on the air. What’s the comradery like at MLB Network?

I think everybody has been at ease with what has been going on from day one, and that’s due in large part to Tony’s leadership. It was a long time since I played, 1998, and it was 11 years from then until the network formed. When that happened, you looked around and there were a lot of former players-turned-analysts: Al Leiter, Harold Reynolds, Dan Plesac and other guys I played with and against- and there was about the same number of 25-30 guys that are in an MLB clubhouse. It was the same kind of thing, so when the camera lights went on, it seemed to be just like you were in the locker room, minus some of the language! It was a fairly easy transition of being able to do that, and I think that was the genesis of the network itself, just talking baseball. It wasn’t anything like being in front of a Yankee Stadium crowd of 25,000 people yelling ‘You suck!’ The studio is much more safe and comfortable!

MLB Network’s Bill Ripken (center), with Lauren Shehadi (left) and Fran Charles (right)

Have you felt the need to ‘scratch the itch’ and get into coaching/managing?

I was part of Team USA’s coaching staff for the 2009 World Baseball Classic after I had that conversation with former Major League Baseball COO Bob DuPuy during the 2008 World Series. I told him that I had an itch and I didn’t know how much I wanted to scratch it. He thought it was a great idea; he talked to [former Major League Baseball Commissioner] Bud Selig and the Team USA baseball folks and I ended up being able to do it. I love being in uniform, but that road trip we took- starting in Florida, going to Toronto, going back to Florida, going to LA- that was about a 29-day road trip and I think we played about 10 games. I realized that I’d been pretty far removed from being in uniform, from being in the clubhouse every day. I liked it, I enjoyed it, but I think it answered some questions for me.

I think I’m on to something coming up to MLB Network and doing 8-10 shows a month. That means there are 20-22 days a month I’m not up here and I’m watching my kids do sports and spending time at home. It seems to be right, I think what I’ve come up with the past few years is a pretty good remedy for that itch. I think I’m doing what I’m meant to do.

How do you come up with topics for your new segment “Bill’s Blackboard?”

Our goal with the segment is to educate and promote thinking in a pure baseball sense. We did a recent one showing Major Leaguers running into outs on the base paths. I still think the golden rule of not making the first or third out at third base should still hold true. There’s a new way of thinking of teams that are going to be super aggressive, not selectively aggressive. Being aggressive is one thing, but being foolish is another. When you sit there in the studio and you watch these things happen, sometimes you just see it over and over.

If I’m not at MLB Network, I go to the MLB.com At Bat app and go through the videos of every game played. When I see something that looks unusual on the screenshot, I usually click on that video first. Someone with an RBI but it looks like an out is being made at second base, for example, I gotta see what happened there.

I have a pretty good squad that I can send videos to and by the time I get back up to MLB Network, I can look through 6-10 videos and we can put things together from there. It’s a really good crew with the thought processes and abilities to create some of the animation, it floors me. I give them my ideas and when they start speaking a different language with the technical details, I just tell them ‘I’ll be back in an hour’ and we go from there!

Your segment on defensive shifts made for a lot of discussion amongst the baseball community. What is your take on ‘the shift’?

That segment on defensive shifts came about because I kept hearing from everyone how much the shift works, and I’m in the studio watching balls roll into the outfield with men on base and nobody’s talking about how ‘the shift cost that guy.’ So you start diving into the research and understanding what can become problematic. I’m an old-school person, I don’t think there’s any question about that, but when you look at overall numbers and batting average on balls in play- which has gone up three or four points over the past couple years- I think it’s my duty to stand up and question whether the shift works as well as people say it does. I’m not saying there’s not a place in the game for shifts, but some of these things that I’ve pointed out can be problematic, say with runners on base, and it needs to be talked about. We can’t just accept some of the things that are being said in today’s game, at least I can’t.

You go through a massive amount of video for the purpose of education and instruction. What is your advice to youth coaches on doing the same?

If you’re dealing with youth players, I like the idea of using positive video. Show somebody swinging the bat getting knocks all over the yard. It shouldn’t get to the point where you’re really breaking a guy’s mechanics down, because the kids don’t need to try to emulate how they do it, just what they can do- go line to line, hit the other way, pull the ball. The positive stuff is pretty cool because it gets you fired up about the game.

What about individual video breakdowns?

When you look at an extended amount of video trying to find something that’s mechanically wrong, you can create something that’s wrong that’s just not there. There are a lot of guys who stand up at home plate and do a lot of things completely different as far as their swing goes.

You can’t stand at home plate 600 times a year the exact same way. It’s just impossible. You can sit there until you find something that’s not there and drive yourself crazy. Video can be great, but you don’t need to overdo it when you’re trying to teach the game.

Aaron Judge struggles after the All-Star break, for example, and people are asking me if I see anything wrong with his swing. I don’t think so. I’d tell him to lock himself in the video room, go back a few months ago when he was absolutely crushing everything, and watch it. There’s a good chance he’ll walk out of the video room feeling a lot better, walking up to home plate singing a song instead of thinking about mechanics and start raking again.

The common thread if you ask great hitters what’s going on is that they’re all trying to see the ball, let it travel, and put a good swing on it. That’s the boring common denominator that everybody brings up when things are going right.

How did ‘The Ripken Way’ get its start?

All those years dad was in the Orioles organization, they had Earl [Weaver], [George] Bamburger, [George] Staller, Billy Hunter, [Jim] Frey, Jimmy Williams. For the guys in the organization who were coming up like Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, Rich Dauer, Mark Belanger, Al Bumbry- they all came up knowing what they should do. I think it was Eddie and Mike Flanagan one day when they were asked about the ‘Oriole Way,’ they said they should call it the ‘Cal Senior Way’ instead, because that’s who they learned it from. Since we lost Dad, Cal and I have tried to come up with what that ‘way’ was.

The first one we always talk about it is the keep it simple part. If we can keep the game simple, we can do the complex things. A double play to end an MLB game with runners on first and third, protecting a one-run lead, ground ball to short, is just catch-throw-catch-throw-catch, game over. Sometimes we forget the simplicity of it and get ahead of ourselves. If the shortstop misses the ball, you can’t do the throw-catch-throw-catch.

Another example is when there’s a runner at second base and two outs. There’s absolutely no reason to look at the coach. Not to fault any coaches in youth baseball- I commend all of those guys for doing what they do- but you see it all the time. Little Jimmy is up there at home plate and there’s a big guy named Johnny up there pitching and he’s throwing a billion, and the coach yells at Jimmy to make sure his feet are here and his elbow is up and get your foot down and all of that. Jimmy is overmatched anyway, and now he’s thinking about four different things and takes a fastball right down the middle for strike one, because he forgot about keeping it simple.

Dad had the unique ability to stand in the third base coaching box and yell out ‘Hey’ and to this day I can still see him doing this: he’d use two fingers to point at his eyes, and he’d say ‘See the ball come up to home plate… and then hit it.’

There’s a lot of different ways to look at this game, I understand that. But at the end of the day, if you throw it better, if you hit it better, if you catch it better, you win.

Photos courtesy MLB Network