With construction of his minor-league ballpark in Aberdeen nearing completion, retired Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken has secured a team to put inside it.
Ripken Baseball finalized the purchase yesterday of the Utica Blue Sox, a short-season Single-A team in the New York-Penn League that will be affiliated with the Orioles. The franchise, with a new name to be determined, doesn't begin play until June, providing additional time for Ripken to get organized in his first endeavor in professional baseball ownership.
The Orioles join the Atlanta Braves as the only major-league clubs with seven affiliates. Four of the Orioles' minor-league clubs are based in Maryland, including Double-A Bowie and Single-A Frederick and Delmarva.
"As we continue to build our minor-league system, the addition of a team in Aberdeen is a bonus step in the process," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations. "It provides us with another level for our players to develop."
Of the 76 games on the New York-Penn schedule, 38 will be played at 6,000-seat Ripken Stadium. The league is considered a step above the Orioles' two rookie-level, short-season affiliates in Bluefield, W.Va., and Sarasota, Fla., and below the South Atlantic League, which includes Delmarva.
Ripken, whose playing career ended after 21 seasons with his retirement in October, said he didn't view the Utica transaction as an early progression toward getting a full-season team at a higher classification.
"I'm very happy with the short-season format and the entry level into professional baseball," said Ripken, whose complex in Aberdeen also will include a youth baseball academy with six ballparks modeled after major-league stadiums. The centerpiece of the project will be a youth-sized version of Camden Yards named after his father that will be the permanent home of the Cal Ripken World Series.
"What's happening with the complex is we're teaching baseball," Ripken said. "We're also trying to get USA Baseball to relocate, and a short-season team fits well. I like the format, I like the 38 games, I like the flexibility of utilizing the stadium for teaching and other events. I'm very content with that."
Ripken removed his biggest obstacle in putting a team in his hometown, the proximity of Single-A Wilmington in Delaware, by agreeing to a "partnership" with the Carolina League franchise that's still being developed. It could include joint ticket packages and promotions, along with an agreement by the future Hall of Famer to conduct youth baseball clinics in the area.
Matt Minker, president of the Wilmington Blue Rocks, met with Ripken shortly before the Super Bowl to establish the basis of their partnership. The presidents of the New York-Penn League and Carolina League later gave their approval.
"Clinics would be very high on the list because of the priority on children, but we're still very much in the preliminary stages," Minker said.
"From the day Cal and I first met, I think we saw eye-to-eye. We're both interested in what's best for affiliated baseball and we're both committed to kids. Who better to teach kids than Cal Ripken? He and I really worked through things on a very easy and positive manner. We're going to try to make both teams better and serve the communities as best we can."
Said Ripken: "Matt agreed with me on the value of having stadiums within 35 minutes, right off I-95. I shared with him the plans to have additional events, possibly international competitions, possibly different teachings in different stadiums. We explored all of that. Instead of looking at it as competition of sorts, I chose to look at it, and Matt and the Blue Rocks did as well, as how we could promote baseball from the grass-roots level on up, how we could work together to make things better for both of us."
Ripken also indicated that he didn't meet any resistance from Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos, whose biggest issue is the possible relocation of the Montreal Expos to Northern Virginia or Washington, D.C.
"The Orioles and Peter have been tremendously supportive," Ripken said. "It really wasn't a matter of talking them into it. It seemed to make sense that if there was going to be baseball in Aberdeen, it should be an Orioles affiliate. Peter always felt that way. I'm very thankful for his support and his vision, as far as the developmental system goes. He sees the value of adding another affiliate."
Ripken Baseball still must appoint a manager and general manager, with an announcement likely to come at a news conference scheduled for Wednesday at the Aberdeen Project construction site. Such details are part of the second phase of Ripken's baseball life, one that's taken him from the field to the front office.
"It's certainly different from what I'm used to doing," he said. "It requires a learning curve on my part, for sure. I've found that you have to be patient and stay the course. Maybe it took a little longer because I had to learn, I had to go through things. Getting to this point, you look back and say it was very much worth all the effort."