Aberdeen, proving ground for greatness, still a Ripken stronghold

September 27, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

Aberdeen has not -- as yet -- considered an official referendum to change its name. That's not necessary, because they've become synonymous Aberdeen and Ripken. Or is it Ripken and Aberdeen? Whatever's your preference.

Aberdeen Proving Ground, the sprawling military installation that has created its own international identity since World War I, might want to name a piece of heavy ordnance for the most durable baseball player America has produced. It would be appropriate.

Since Jan. 1, 1997, more than 21,000 visitors, homebodies and long-distance travelers, have located the intersection of Route 40 and Bel Air Avenue in downtown Aberdeen where the Ripken Museum occupies space. Now the museum, with its own expansion on the drawing board, has purchased city hall and, in turn, leases part of the building back to the administration that will move to new offices in 2000.

The decision to build a museum honoring Ripken happened via the direction of former Mayor Charles "Chuck" Boutin and a group of progressive Harford County leaders. They not only discussed the project, which was considered by some skeptics as merely a long-distance fantasy, but Aberdeen also made it happen, and the result is something special. Not too many towns are motivated to build museums for favorite sons, but they all aren't comparable to Ripken.

Not only would the most celebrated of all Baltimore Orioles be honored within the walls, but the organizing committee also preferred that the entire Ripken baseball family be included in the museum's story with artifacts: uniforms, bats, balls, trophies, gloves, pictures and even lineup cards that linked them to playing the game from Little League to the American League.

Now that Ripken has ended his consecutive-games play at the almost-inconceivable number of 2,632, there's an even deeper realization and appreciation in Aberdeen for what he has achieved by way of total commitment. Cal The Junior carries himself with a Ripken-like maturity, the kind of manners he was taught at home by parents who transmitted specific ideals and helped shape him into the type of individual he is.

"He has qualities I haven't found in other men," said Jim McMahon, president of the museum and the catalyst for so much that has been done with parades and other tributes. "I say this about Cal Jr. with the deep realization that he is an exceptional human being. He constantly thinks of others and wonders how what he does is going to affect them.

"Look at the way he ended The Streak. He could have done it anywhere, but felt it was important to reserve the moment for Baltimore. He has a depth of understanding and consideration in so many other ways."

Yes, Ripken is more than a fielder of the ball and swinger of the bat. He has a true awareness of what's going on around him. His ability to express himself and to divulge his innermost feelings, when he deems the situation appropriate, makes him one of the most articulate of athletes in this or any era.

His baseball talents began to crystallize at Aberdeen High School, where Orioles scout Jim Gilbert remembers seeing him pitch and, as with representatives from other teams, watched as he overpowered the competition. "Most of the scouts thought he would make the grade as a pitcher," Gilbert said. "As time went on, he worked out with the Orioles and often hit against his father, Cal Sr., an Oriole coach, in batting practice.

"I remember a key workout in Memorial Stadium before the boy went to our Bluefield farm club. We hit balls to him in the infield, but he damaged the little finger on his throwing hand after about 50 ground balls and we wanted to ease off, but he said, 'No, hit me some more.' A lot of us were there that day for what was kind of a final judgment on Cal.

"Clyde Kluttz was in the stands. So was Tom Giordano. They dTC both were running the Orioles farm department. The rest of us, as I recall, included Dick Bowie, the top area scout; Paul 'Ears' McNeal; Randy Bowie, who was Dick's son; and Billie Timberlake. Kluttz said he wanted us to make a recommendation on where we thought Cal should play in 1978.

"I remember we got a couple cans of beer from Clay Reid out of the clubhouse cooler and sat around analyzing Ripken. I think he only had two home runs in high school, but he hit wicked line drives. He had a sound swing. As a pitcher, his curve was exceptional, and he threw about 86 or 87 mph. After we talked, Dick Bowie said his strong recommendation to Kluttz would be to keep him an infielder. I thought to myself he would have to play a lot of shortstop to equal his potential as a pitcher, but the right decision was made. It was unanimous."

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