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Cal gives youth a taste of big-time

When Cal Ripken Jr. built his youth baseball facility in Aberdeen, Md., he wanted kids to get the feeling of what it's like to play in big-league stadiums. He spent heavily to construct a 3,500-seat replica of Camden Yards, complete with a hotel that stands in for the right-field warehouse in Baltimore.

The other fields aren't quite as detailed, but he added a Green Monster on his Fenway Park and with brother Billy Ripken tried to make the outfield wall of another diamond duplicate Wrigley Field.

"Billy built a fake brick wall behind [the fence], and we've put ivy around the wall," Ripken said. "The only problem is deer keep eating the ivy."

One problem the Cubs don't have.

The ivy will be real for Ripken this Saturday, when he serves as a spokesman and coach for the Under Armour All America Baseball Game at Wrigley Field. This will be the fourth year that top high school players from around the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico have played this game, and the second year they've come to Chicago for the event, which really should be on any baseball junkie's calendar.

The top high school player in the country, Lance McCullers Jr. of Tampa, Fla., isn't coming. But that's because he was in the 2010 game, after his sophomore year at Jesuit High.

Hayden Hurst, a 6-5 right-hander from Jacksonville, Fla., and first baseman Ryan Ripken (Cal's son) will be two of the players watched most closely as scouts keep an eye on four days of baseball activities.

Ripken, who along with Billy founded Ripken Baseball in 2001, believes it's the type of event that makes development more fun for talented players. He acknowledges that fewer players are playing baseball in the United States because of the growth of sports such as lacrosse, hockey and soccer, but sees players having the chance to play more than he did when he was growing up around Earl Weaver's Orioles.

"Kids are making specialty choices earlier than before," Ripken said. "But the kids who want to play baseball are getting a grander experience, which makes it fun."

One of Cal's favorite photos is of his son, Ryan, touching home plate at Fenway Park as a 6-year-old at the 1999 All-Star Game. Cal had invited his son into the dugout after he was out of the game, and between innings they ran across the field to get to the media room.

"There's such a great feeling of being in the ballparks where the best players ever played," Ripken said. "Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams. That's the great history. That's what kids get out of events like these."=

Napoli strikes back

Traded by the Angels last season, Mike Napoli is one of the reasons the Rangers have remained positioned to return to the playoffs. It's doubtful that the Angels would have traded their longtime catcher directly to Texas, but he wound up there when the Blue Jays spun him for reliever Frank Francisco after acquiring him in the deal that sent Vernon Wells to Anaheim.

Napoli was frequently criticized for his receiving skills while playing for Mike Scioscia, who was one of the top defensive catchers when he played, but is flourishing under Ron Washington. While being ultraproductive as a hitter (1.004 OPS entering the weekend), Napoli has become a favorite target for Texas pitchers. His 2.37 catcher's ERA was the lowest among major-leaguers with at least 250 innings caught.

"I always felt like I was looking over my shoulder to see if I was doing things right," Napoli told the Dallas Morning News. "I had 'bad hands.' I was so worried about my setup and the mechanics all the time. I learned a lot. I learned a lot of what I do there, but playing there just wasn't much fun."

When Napoli was acquired, the plan was to use him at first base and DH, but he's getting more time behind the plate than he was early in the season.

Pence priceless so far

Hunter Pence is off to a running start in Philadelphia, charging toward October with a newcomer's enthusiasm. That was exactly what Charlie Manuel hoped he'd bring.

Manuel said his experience in Cleveland and conversations with Joe Torre and Joe Maddon have made him wary about the impact that consistent success can have on players.

"What happens is, players become such big celebrities," Manuel said. "It's kind of natural that their ego, their hat size grows." Manuel always worries about something. This time it's how the Phillies expanded their NL East lead from 2 1/2 games on July 9 to 8 1/2 entering Saturday's games. He's afraid his team will let up on the gas pedal.

Mike Harrington is on vacation. His Inside Baseball column will return next Sunday.