In Aberdeen, fresh approach to grand old game

June 18, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

It's an experiment that's still playing out, an independent baseball league in which the maximum player salary is $15,000 and there's more fun generated from the concept than anyone thought possible.

Welcome to the Atlantic League, where the Aberdeen Arsenal holds forth. Bill Ripken, director of baseball operations for the new club, said the idea far exceeds his fondest hopes and believes future acceptance is assured.

Crowds have been conspicuous by their absence, but that can change. It's only a temporary condition. The Arsenal is back on home grounds, Harford Community College, after spending 27 days on the road. Imagine almost a full month riding buses and living in motels - all for love of the game.

"The players enjoy the lifestyle," said Ripken. "It gives them the chance to play the game at another level. They don't want to embarrass themselves. And they don't. All of them have been professionals, some in the big leagues.

"The players don't just show up at 7 o'clock to play. It's not a beer-drinking league, just a lot of pride displayed by all the teams and the players who are looking for another chance, maybe to get back to Triple-A or to help an organization that's in need of a player or two. For some of the players, they look on it as they would a summer job. They're doing what they want to do - playing baseball."

The Atlantic League, presided over by Joe Klein, who has done a masterful job of organization, has eight franchises - Newark, Lehigh, Bridgeport, Atlantic City, Long Island, Somerset and Nashua, in addition to Aberdeen. Ticket prices are affordable, ranging from $5 to $12.

Aberdeen would have preferred to have waited until next year to join the league, but made a concession to field a team this year to keep the league from having an uneven number of clubs. It hasn't been easy to get things moving, but the trial run bodes well for years to come. Kind of a shakedown cruise that lasts all season.

The club is a jointly held business, headed by Cal Ripken and Peter Kirk, the man who cultivated minor-league baseball in Bowie, Frederick and Salisbury.

Ripken has Keith Lupton and Adam Gladstone associated with the Aberdeen operation, and the hunt for players is ongoing.

Lupton, without a doubt, has an adaptability that supersedes that of every other front-office executive in baseball. When the Bowie Baysox' park wasn't going to be ready in 1993, he made a deal with the City of Baltimore to use then-vacant Memorial Stadium.

Then, the next year, with the facility still not ready, the Baysox played in four different locations - Frederick, Wilmington, the Naval Academy and the University of Maryland.

The Atlantic League club and the stadiums, both regulation and miniature, to be built are merely part of the grand plan. The Ripken Baseball Academy is projected to be put into place next year. There will be a field for "little guys," plus five other parks modeled after Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Memorial Stadium, Wrigley Field and Ebbets Field.

The Cal Ripken World Series for 11- and 12-year-olds will be played there, plus being televised on the Fox Network. Bill Ripken said, "5,000 kids will come to Aberdeen annually for the baseball camp and the kind of instructional experience we're going to offer."

"Cal's name is so vital to the success of what we're doing," Bill said. "It's all going to work. This is going to be absolutely perfect. I know it because Cal said so. Cal makes things work, and he will with this."

The Ripken summer baseball camp at Mount St. Mary's College will continue. Another chance for youngsters in another part of the state to learn the fundamentals , with a touch of the Ripken way.

What's evolving in Harford County, with all its ambitious aspects, is without precedent. It has never been tried before - a professional team, a baseball academy for youngsters and other amenities dealing with the positive aspects of the sport.

Kirk, who just sold his three Maryland-based minor-league teams, and Ripken will make a successful combination. Just check the record. Aberdeen may well become the hub of Maryland baseball and, no doubt, the county economy will get a substantial boost because of the number of tourists attracted there, plus visitors to the Ripken Museum.

Kirk and Ripken, along with Aberdeen, are plowing new ground. A format that is going to take millions in expenditures. But it'll all be an asset to Maryland. Also, it's a progressive step for baseball, which, too often in the past, has stayed locked into the status quo.

This will be a baseball adventure that stands alone. Like no other ever tried.

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