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Cal Ripken Jr. comes to Tampa to unveil new youth baseball field in Sulphur Springs

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The economically challenged Sulphur Springs region of Tampa was energized on Monday with the official opening of the latest youth baseball field built by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.

The facility, built next to the Springhill Park Community Center, was built for $1.025 million with the city of Tampa contributing $500,000 to it. It has an all-weather, low maintenance field with new dugouts, scoreboard, backstop and bleachers for youth baseball throughout the city, though foundation vice chairman Cal Ripken Jr. says it can be used for other sports, and not just baseball.

“We call them youth development parks, because we want them to encourage them to do anything, any productive thing athletic thing that they want,” said the Hall of Fame baseball star. “This is their safe place to play.”

This is the 56th such facility built by the Ripken Foundation since it started them in 2010. The foundation was created by Cal and his brother Billy, who also played in the Major Leagues. Cal Ripken Sr. died of lung cancer at 63 in 1999. Ripken Jr. said that when he and Billy conceived of creating something in their father’s honor, they chose youth baseball parks because is was “what he lived for.”

“It was for helping kids and using baseball to help kids, so we started the foundation in his name,” Ripken Jr. told reporters shortly after the official ribbon announcement took place. “There’s a lot of good feeling that I derive from the connection I had from my dad, and what we believe the legacy he had.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn acknowledged that the Sulphur Springs neighborhood has struggled for years with crime, drugs and poverty. It’s been a place where he’s devoted considerable resources, including an announcement last week offering a developer $1 million to build new and affordable homes on about 18 parcels of land.

With dozens of kids from the community standing behind him as he stood in front of a podium placed at home plate, Buckhorn said the investments are being done in those kids names to give them an opportunity.

“This will be a place of hope, ” he said. “This will be a place where these kids can come and be kids. Just kids, not worry about all the other things that they struggle with in these sometimes tough neighborhoods. This is about their future, not ours, but theirs. And the chance for them to come and play America’s pastime, and to learn how to play baseball on a world class field and to recreate and use the Spring Hill community park gym and to just be kids is an amazing thing.”

Ripken Jr. said the parks that have built in other areas have been “transformational” to those communities.

“The community sees it, and they embrace it, and they protect it, and they don’t let the element that might lead them astray come on this field,” he said. “Now all of a sudden you can have a program. You can learn. You can learn all the valuable lessons that sports will give you.”

The former Oriole star, who now works as an analyst on the TBS Network, crouched behind the plate in his elegant, pin-striped suit to receive a pitch from the mound from Mayor Buckhorn to officially unveil the new park. However, Mayor Buckhorn’s pitch to plate was a bit errant, causing the Hall of Framer to have to lunge to his left to make the catch, tumbling over in the process – but still holding on to the ball.

“I’m really glad that I’m able to use the platform of baseball, and the name of my dad to benefit communities like this one,” said Ripken Jr. “I’m so happy that we’re opening it today.”

In addition to the city and the Ripken Foundation, other sponsors include the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, the Tampa Bay Rays Foundation, C.A.N.D.O. and the Conn Memorial Foundation.

The Ripken Foundation will unveil its 57th facility on Tuesday in Naples.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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