Playing to Win: Cal Ripken, Jr. and the Keys to Success

Baseball legend Cal Ripken, Jr. shares the keys to his successful career.

Cal Ripken, Jr. knows a thing or two about perseverance. The legendary shortstop, who spent his professional career playing for the Baltimore Orioles, was nicknamed the “Iron Man” for breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for playing the most consecutive games in baseball history — 2,632 to be exact — over nearly 17 seasons. He still holds that record.

Ripken shared his keys to success in the Regions Speaker Series Fundamentals with Cal Ripken, Jr. annual event.


Loving what you do is the secret to happiness and success. And when times get difficult — and they will — is when you need that passion most. In 1988, the Baltimore Orioles lost 21 games to start the season. We were the laughingstock of the league. It was the worst time imaginable as a professional baseball player. But even in those adverse conditions, I kept searching for a solution because I was so passionate about the game. The following season, we played for the pennant against the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s one of those experiences where, if you get through that, you can certainly get through anything life throws at you.


I’ve found two types of competition very motivating: One is competing against myself, and the other is competing against my teammates. To compete against yourself, you have to be honest. You need the courage to say, “What are my strengths and my weaknesses?” You must be willing to practice things you’re weak at to get better. When it came to working with younger teammates, I gave them all my wisdom, as well as befriending and supporting them. But when it came time to execute on all these plays we’d been practicing, in my mind, I was competing with them. So if somebody was watching a game, they might say, “That kid is pretty good, but he’s no Ripken yet.” That form of competition really gave me an edge.


You can’t always get the game-winning hit or the game-saving catch. It’s all the things you do in between that will define your value. As an offensive player, I was third in the batting lineup most of my career. But I could also bunt, get runners from second to third and even steal bases. At one point, I started calling pitches to the catcher and discovered I was pretty good at that, too. Frank Robinson, my manager, told me there were a few times he was going to take me out of a game’s lineup during my playing streak. But he said every time he thought about it, he remembered all my other skills and couldn’t replace me. If you spread yourself out and make more contributions, you’ll be irreplaceable no matter what you do.


At some points in life, you have to stand up for what you believe in. Sometimes everybody is going to be weak around you. In my family growing up, we talked about two kinds of stubbornness. There was good stubbornness — when you stood up for what you believed in — and there was bad stubbornness, when you were just arbitrarily being stubborn and uncooperative. My mom taught us how to differentiate between the two.


Baseball is a sport where you need both emotional and physical strength, because you play it every day. You don’t get time to heal, you don’t get time off and you have to figure out how to play at less than 100 percent. Now that I have my own company, I’ve discovered another kind of strength. We have about 60 full-time young employees. I’ve learned that nothing replaces preparation. When you’re talking with young people, they want to go do it by the seat of their pants. They don’t want to learn the presentation; they want to go out and sell, sell, sell. I tell them that, for those four measly at-bats you get during a game, it takes a thousand practice swings to give yourself the best chance. You’re not going to have sustained success unless you prepare and practice.

Life Management

I dislike it when people say, “If it’s outside of your control, just go with the flow.” Why would I just let something happen I didn’t agree with? I try to think about what kind of control I have to make something better. For example, I played for the Orioles for 21 years and had nine managers over that stretch. I learned that you can either accept what the manager does, or you can be proactive. On the first day of spring training, I would ask my manager a simple question: How do you see my spring training unfolding? He would suggest I plan my own schedule for the six weeks. I would write it out, and my manager would follow it. The other guys on my team would get mad. I told them, “All you have to do is have an adult conversation with your manager.” How many other players do you think took my advice? Zero.


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