A local field of dreams

Baseball: For local players, a tryout for Aberdeen's minor-league team is a major chance to shine

April 02, 2000|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

It is a fine day for imagining, what with the spectacular spring weather and a whole new baseball team to recruit.

And Jason Kingsley imagines himself not an apprentice electrician and part-time student at Harford Community College, but a professional pitcher staring down from the mound as thousands cheer.

Then Billy Ripken calls out, "Give me that first donkey out there!" And Kingsley, 20, a muscle-bound kid from Havre de Grace with a thin goatee and "JK" tattooed in Gothic script on his arm, runs onto the field and throws his heart out for exactly four minutes.

Catching is John Cephalis, 22, of Edgewood, who works in the kitchen at Bertucci's in Bel Air. He's crouching and spitting and hoping to impress Ripken or another of the big-league veterans out today doing the judging.

They are two of 45 eager prospects to turn out at Harford Community College for the open tryouts of the inaugural season of the Aberdeen Arsenal, a new minor-league baseball team in the heart of Ripken country. Around here, the Orioles legacy of Cal Jr., his brother, Billy -- a former Orioles second baseman who serves as "director of baseball operations" for the new team -- and their late father, Cal Sr., have planted the national pastime even deeper than in the rest of small-town America.

"A lot of young guys are out here playing for pennies, for the love of the game," says Cephalis. "Not [whining] and moaning for millions like they do in the bigs."

Yet, he admits, it is precisely "the bigs," the big leagues, where he would like to land, and like everybody else, he's here because the Arsenal is a giant step in that direction.

If they are among the chosen, they'll play 140 games in 153 days, earn an average of $2,000 a month -- and get a look from a lot of major-league scouts.

It is a fine day for imagining, and Aberdeen Mayor Doug Wilson, 46, imagines half a million visitors a year to the Arsenal's planned $25.7 million stadium, with construction set to start next month at the intersection of I-95 and Route 22.

Once, long ago, Wilson batted .300 as a shortstop at Aberdeen High School, graduating a few years before a somewhat more famous shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr. He turned down an offer to try out for the Kansas City Royals, preferring to try his hand at professional bowling. That didn't work out either; now Wilson is an accountant and spectator.

"The stadium is an economic development project, but it's really about quality of life," said Wilson, mayor for two years of this town of 13,500, where the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground is the largest employer. "It will have a carousel and a sandbox, so mom and dad can come and watch a game, and the team will sort of be the baby sitter."

The Arsenal just last month selected a nickname, after a contest that produced hundreds of possibilities grouped chiefly around the Ripken connection (Ironmen, Rippers) or the military heritage (A-Bombs, Bombers). Now, they are scrambling to recruit a worthy lineup before their April 28 debut on their temporary field at Harford Community College.

They began yesterday's tryouts with only two of 25 players signed. By the end of four hours yesterday, they had selected just three more players.

But the phones started ringing Friday as major league spring training camps began to close, leaving hundreds of players behind, said Keith Lupton, the Arsenal's general manager. One of the places those not chosen look for work is the Atlantic League, a minor league beginning its third season, whose eight teams are not affiliated with any major league franchise.

"One guy flew home to Venezuela and called us from there," Lupton says.

Most of the team will probably be chosen from such major-league discards, he says. But the team is taking the tryouts seriously.

"It's going to take a pretty good ballplayer to make the club," says Lupton, leaning on the batting cage and watching hitters take their turns. "But we've had so much interest we wanted to give everybody a chance."

It's a festive occasion, with the buds just opening on the trees and softball and lacrosse games -- strictly amateur -- going on the adjacent fields.

Two reporters for the Aberdeen Middle School newspaper, eighth-graders Stephanie Crehan and Brittany Anderson, scurry around taking notes and shooting pictures.

Billy Ripken, wearing shades, keeps up a sarcastic banter as the players audition.

Family members watch from the bleachers.

Pauline Young, an insurance adjuster from Annapolis, keeps her fingers crossed as she watches her son, 26-year-old Al Lee, try a fielding exercise.

"My son used to tell me at his basketball games, `If I don't hear your mouth, Mom, I don't feel like I'm playing,' " Young says. "The support you get from your family and friends is important."

It is a fine day for imagining, and Andy Bair, 23, pitches well enough to spark some imaginations. "He threw that ball hard! Hard!" Ripken declares. Keith Lupfter the 1998 season, becomes one of three players to be signed by the Aberdeen Arsenal.

And by the end of the day, Bair has resumed his professional career. A one-time Calvert Hall standout who spent four seasons with the Florida Marlins' farm teams before being released after the 1998 season, becomes one of three players to be signed by the Aberdeen Arsenal.

Kingsley and Cephalis, the pitcher and catcher who led off the tryouts and play together in a local league, are not among them. Kingsley says he didn't throw as hard as he might have. Cephalis says his weakness is hitting to right field.

Kingsley says if baseball doesn't work out, he hopes to run his own electrical business some day. Cephalis figures he'll join the state police. But not just yet.

"I'll probably give baseball another five years," he says. "I'll be back here next year, for sure."

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