Ripken group seeking new team for Aberdeen

With minor-league Arsenal not returning, franchise sought for future stadium

April 06, 2001|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Minor-league baseball will not return this year for a second season in Harford County, but Orioles star Cal Ripken is working to obtain a team that would play next spring in a stadium under construction in his hometown of Aberdeen.

And although Maryland lawmakers voted this week to hold back some state funding until a team is secured, those involved in the stadium and associated youth baseball school said this week that they do not expect the project to be delayed.

"Our project is no secret, and the level of interest among people who own minor-league baseball teams is overwhelming," said Ira Rainess, president of Ripken's Tufton Professional Baseball LLC. "When the time is right, we'll announce who is going to play ball in the stadium."

Ripken's representatives declined to discuss details, saying only that the group is keeping open all options, including buying and relocating an existing team or obtaining a minor-league expansion team. State officials who have spoken with Ripken and his business associates said the group is negotiating with several teams in hopes of obtaining one that is affiliated with a major-league franchise - perhaps even the Orioles.

Ripken and Rainess recently offered assurances that the state would not be committing money to an empty stadium, said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman.

"I really felt confident after I talked to . . . them," said Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "It's a nice project. It's ambitious, but it's solid."

Hoffman's committee initially added language to the state budget bill that would have held back $3 million in state money for the fiscal year starting in July until a team is signed. The language, similar to conditions attached to other stadiums built with state money, had been proposed by non-partisan legislative policy analysts.

In the end, the legislature voted to make $2 million available in July and to hold back $1 million until a team is signed.

Gary McGuigan, a project director for the Maryland Stadium Authority, which is managing construction of the 6,000-seat stadium, said the $2 million could last into September. He said he expects a team to have been signed by then. But if not, he said, the Tufton group or the city of Aberdeen likely would speed up its payments to keep the project on track for a spring 2002 opening.

The state is contributing $7 million to the project. The city of Aberdeen is contributing $5 million, and Harford County is pitching in $2 million. Ripken's group is to pay the balance of the $25 million to build what will be known as Ripken Stadium and the baseball school.

The baseball academy would include six baseball diamonds - designed to be miniature replicas of such hallowed baseball venues as Oriole Park, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. The nationally televised world series for the Cal Ripken Division of the Babe Ruth League is to be played in 2002 in Aberdeen.

Aberdeen officials have said the complex could generate more than $26 million a year.

The optimism for the stadium project comes less than a year after it seemed in danger of falling apart. Maryland Baseball LLC, which cultivated minor-league teams in Bowie, Frederick and Salisbury before selling them last year, pulled out of the Aberdeen project amid concerns about sluggish skybox sales. The Aberdeen Arsenal, the team that had been envisioned as the stadium's tenant, played its inaugural season at Harford Community College - and struggled.

Owned by Maryland Baseball with a management team that included former Oriole Bill Ripken, the Arsenal drew an average of 552 fans to its games. In contrast, the team played road games in front of more than 6,000.

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