Taxpayers fund Ripken 'museum'
ABERDEEN, Md. — A visitor here might decide that the “Ripken Experience” is the perfect slogan for a sprawling complex that's part public, part private but wholly devoted to the game of baseball and one of the sport's most famous families.
For those keeping score at home, there's the 6,000-seat Ripken Stadium, an $18 million minor-league ballpark built in 2002 from Ripken Design Co. blueprints. The ballpark was built for a team owned by Ripken Baseball LLC, a Baltimore corporation founded a year earlier by Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles infielder Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother, Billy, also an ex-major leaguer.
The family firm also owns the site's Ripken Academy, where future stars are coached. They're taught the trademarked “Ripken Way” at Ripken Camps that prep kids for Ripken Baseball Tournaments. Those tournaments include the Cal Ripken Jr. World Series, which plays its championships inside a smaller stadium at the complex known as Cal Ripken Sr.'s Yard. That stadium was also crafted by Ripken Designs for the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, a charity founded by the Ripken brothers 11 years ago to honor their deceased father, a former major-league manager.
Yet even fans of the Ripkens might be surprised by a Tribune-Review look into how much government help went to the Ripkens' foundation and, indirectly, back to the family partnership.
The for-profit Ripken Stadium controlled by Ripken Baseball squats on public land and was mostly built with government money. The nonprofit Cal Sr.'s Yard also was erected with $2.3 million in aid from county and state coffers. In 2021, the Yard is slated to be transferred to the Ripkens' Baltimore charity under a $462,070 rent-to-own deal that government bond documents describe as a “nominal” sum.
A total of $28.4 million in taxpayers' money went to the Ripkens' foundation from 2003 to 2011 — about 45 percent of the nonprofit's revenues during that period. The largest donor was the U.S. Department of Justice, which funneled $23.8 million to the group to run mentoring programs designed to take a bite out of juvenile crime by exposing youngsters to baseball.
Most years — from 2003 through 2006 and then in 2009 and 2010 — federal funds were specifically earmarked for the Ripkens' charity by congressional leaders after the nonprofit spent $448,315 on lobbyists, according to federal filings. In 2008 and 2011, the foundation competed against other organizations and won grants awarded directly by Justice.
The Ripkens would not speak to the Trib. Both lawmakers and Justice officials contacted by the Tribune-Review declined to grade or quantify the impact the “Ripken Experience” made on reducing juvenile crime. Sixty-one percent of the 75,924 youths who have participated in the nonprofit's programs nationwide completed the courses in avoiding drugs and crime and staying in school.
In 2007, the U.S. Office of Inspector General criticized the foundation for $152,403 in “unallowable or unsupported costs” from earlier grants, according to an audit released by the agency. That included $80,000 spent on three large display cases referred to as the Ripken Museum.
Two of the three cases display Ripken sports memorabilia; the third contains items from the Negro League. The display cases sit outside the club and suite seating on the top level of the minor-league Ripken Stadium.
Confronted with the Inspector General's findings, the Department of Justice sided with the Ripkens, arguing in internal documents sent to the Trib that a baseball shrine to the Ripkens was allowed under an “anti-crime” grant. Justice closed the case in 2009 after the nonprofit repaid $17,031 for other disputed charges tied to the grants, according to the agency.
Before judging the lawmakers, government agencies and the charity, however, foundation president Steve Salem wants you to see the Ripkens' nonprofit as two distinct organizations: a pre-2006 version that made a lot of rookie mistakes and a different outfit that emerged from internal reforms instituted over the span of 18 months after he arrived six years ago.
Salem and other Ripken officials concede that the charity at first took too much government aid, and some grant spending was misguided.
“We were trying to figure it out,” said Ripken Baseball LLC spokesman John Maroon. “We had inexperienced people.”
A former lobbyist, Salem said that last year the nonprofit dumped their Washington agents. The charity now uses government aid only as “seed money” to woo private donations not to run operations.
What remains of government aid is coming from various state attorneys general nationwide — excluding Pennsylvania — who are expected to combine for about $1 million in annual spending on the foundation's “Badges to Baseball” mentoring program that links police officers with impoverished kids. Tapping a stack of stats showing increasing parental and law enforcement support for the project, Salem told the Trib that it's “the best crime-prevention program out there. Period.”
Salem said a key reform was enlarging a foundation board loaded with too many Ripken relatives and chums. In 2005, for example, Cal, Jr. and Billy served as the foundation's vice presidents alongside their treasurer — and sister — Ellen and their mom, Violet, the board president and director. In recent years, Salem has recruited more than 40 local and national leaders with no business or blood ties to the Ripkens to come onboard. An audit and compliance committee ensures separation between family business interests and the charity, he said.
If the foundation hadn't embarked on these sorts of fixes, Salem believes the organization's tax-exempt status would've been at risk because outsiders couldn't always tell where the Ripkens' for-profit enterprises began and their charity ended.
There are still some overlaps. The foundation shares a receptionist and office manager with the for-profit staff, but Salem works solely for the charity. The charity still buys Ripken Designs' plans for baseball diamonds it's building in blighted communities nationwide. The for-profit Ripken Baseball pays $36,000 annual rent for the tournaments they hold on nonprofit Cal Sr.'s Yard.
The foundation still pays about $117,000 annually to Ripken Baseball's subsidiaries to maintain the Aberdeen arena, handle the concessions — 32 ounces of Coke in a souvenir Cal Jr. cup is $8 — and provide storage. Salem estimates that's half of what outside contractors would charge.
Since 2008, the charity has reported about $154,000 in annual transactions between the family's for-profit businesses and the foundation. But both Salem and Ripken Baseball officials insist the board carefully scrutinizes interactions.
“It's really a completely different organization, including separating from Ripken Baseball,” Salem said. “There's a complete firewall now between the two entities. Before, that wasn't the case.”
Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or firstname.lastname@example.org.