POCOMOKE — The Pocomoke High School student body got a rare mid-winter treat this week when former Baltimore Orioles great and Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. surprised them with a visit on Wednesday afternoon.
Last spring, Ripken made preliminary arrangements to address Pocomoke’s senior class at graduation, but as the date drew nearer, a schedule conflict kept him from traveling to the southern Worcester County school and Ripken vowed to try to find another time. The Pocomoke student body then launched an aggressive and highly successful social media campaign to bring the Iron Man to the school.
The campaign waged on Twitter and Facebook, for example, caught the attention of Ripken and his agent, but it was still uncertain if he would make the trip to Pocomoke High. On Wednesday, the entire Pocomoke student body was brought into the school’s auditorium for an assembly presumably to ramp up the “We Want Cal” campaign. As the school’s self-made “We Won’t Stop” video, modeled after the Orioles’ slogan during a stretch run to the playoffs last season, showed on a video screen, Principal Annette Wallace addressed the student body.
“We talked to Cal’s agent and we need one more push to try to get him here,” she said. “Get your devices out and tweet ‘We Want Cal.’”
The hundreds of students in attendance whipped out their phones and mobile devices and followed their principal’s orders. Seconds later, the Iron Man himself appeared from the wings on the side of the stage, touching off wild cheers and a standing ovation.
The affable Ripken, dressed in a sharp blue suit, humbly acknowledged the students’ reaction and praised the school’s remarkable social media campaign that brought him there.
“When I got to the big leagues, there was no social media,” he said. “In fact, there was no remote control, and we had to actually get up and change the channel. All kidding aside, the power of social media can be wonderful and great things can happen like my being here with you guys today.”
While acknowledging all of the positives of the Internet and social media, Ripken warned the students with it comes responsibility, a message that seemed remarkably timely given some of the negative applications of social media involving local students in the last week.
“You have to show some restraint,” he said. “Some things should remain private. You still have to maintain strong principles and values.”
Ripken fielded questions from a panel of students chosen to be seated on stage. He was at times funny and at others serious, but he was always humble and delivered strong messages for the students in all cases. When asked about what sports he played, Ripken told the students it was important to explore all of their opportunities.
“I played every sport possible, but parents are always asking me about specialization,” he said. “I really encourage you to explore other sports and see what you enjoy the most. I played soccer, and, of course, you can’t use your hands, so I learned footwork and balance that carried over to baseball. The same thing goes for basketball, where things move quickly and you have to adjust to things coming at you fast. That carries over to baseball, too.”
Ripken said with so many kids specializing in a specific sport at a young age these days, many become burned out or begin resenting it.
“It should be fun for you,” he said. “See the value in developing your athleticism in different ways. Specializing too soon makes it seem more like work. Try new things and come back to what you like the most.”
Ripken said he was drafted by the Orioles out of high school and didn’t go to college, although a clause in his contract would have made the Orioles pay for school if he didn’t work out as a player. He advised the young students to pursue education.
“The odds are against you to make it in pro ball,” he said. “You have to have a backup plan. It’s a good idea to have a backup plan for whatever you’re doing in life. Know the importance of education because it stays with you your whole life.”
Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s Major League record for most consecutive games played and it is unlikely his own record will ever be approached, but it wasn’t always that way.
“I wasn’t a perfect attendance guy [in school],” he said. “On the first day of first grade, I tried to make a break for it. Honestly, it is all about commitment. You can’t accomplish everything by just showing up, but you can’t accomplish anything if you don’t show up. Be proud of the fact you stand for something and show up every day and try to accomplish great things.”
In perhaps his most important message of the afternoon, Ripken stressed the importance of education.
“You have to balance academics and athletics,” he said. “When I was in school, academics came first and if you did well academically, you earned the privilege to play sports. Take pride in your academics and apply the same commitment and responsibility to your athletics. They say practice makes perfect, but my Dad taught me perfect practice makes perfect. The same applies to academics.”
Ripken grew up around the Orioles and played his entire career with the organization. When asked who his favorite Oriole was while growing up, he didn’t hesitate to say Brooks Robinson.
“People held Brooks out for their kids to embrace because that’s the kind of person he is,” he said. “I never heard anybody say a bad thing about Brooksie. I learned from that. When I was slumping or struggling on the field, I sometimes became even more popular with the kids because parents appreciated the example I set.”
Ripken still closely follows his former team, and when put on the spot about his favorite current Oriole, he didn’t miss a beat.
“Adam Jones is a great and exciting player and I love to watch him play, but the player I really love to watch is Manny Machado,” he said. “He has a great glove and rocket of an arm and he is a special player. I’m curious to see if he’ll get a chance to play short again. He’s a great kid and he’s really not much older than you guys.”