Building baseball memories and for the love of the game

Project: A stadium grows in Aberdeen, and Cal Ripken and a young fan share a baseball ritual that forever joins fathers and sons.

May 21, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Andy Armstrong is a baseball-crazy 12-year-old, a skinny kid with glasses who distinctly remembers sitting in the stands at Camden Yards for the first time and seeing Eddie Murray hit the 19th and final grand slam of his career, who once spent an entire game standing by the bullpen and begging the pitchers to toss him a ball, who treasures the autograph he got from Josh Paul, a White Sox back-up catcher who just got sent down to Triple-A.

Andy's dad, Mark, is a skinny, 43-year-old engineer who was always better at watching baseball than playing it, who distinctly remembers sitting in the thick air of Memorial Stadium on summer nights, all tensed up with fingers crossed every time Brooks Robinson or Boog Powell came to bat.

One day last year, Mark Armstrong came home with just about the most exciting piece of news that an engineer can give his 12-year-old son: He had just found out that the company he works for had been hired to build a baseball stadium in Aberdeen and that his boss would be none other than Cal Ripken.

FOR THE RECORD - A map accompanying a Page 1A story yesterday about Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen showed the stadium in the wrong place. The map above shows the location of the stadium correctly.

"I was like, `If you have a choice between jobs, please choose this one,'" Andy says.

Andy speaks highly of this year's post-Cal squad of Orioles. Josh Towers, the young right-handed pitcher with more promise than consistency, earns top marks in his book, and he was impressed with third baseman Tony Batista's grand slam off Roger Clemens on Opening Day.

But for a Harford County boy who became aware of baseball around the time a certain Iron Man was playing in his 2,131st consecutive game, the Orioles, really the whole world of baseball, is about one thing and one thing only: Cal Ripken.

There are men with more money and political contacts than Ripken who could have built a baseball stadium in Aberdeen. They even could have created a baseball academy there to teach boys how to bat and field. But the love of the game and its rituals that permeates this place could only have come from him.

Working with his brother, Bill, Cal Ripken has built a 5,500-seat stadium for the IronBirds, an Orioles minor-league affiliate that will begin the season June 18. Now nearly complete, it is one of the few short-season, Single-A stadiums around with club seats and skyboxes.

The stadium isn't an exact copy of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but is reminiscent of it, with a brick exterior accented by green metalwork. Its signature feature is the orientation of the diamond: Fans will enter directly behind home plate, and the field will stretch before them like an emerald garden.

But the stadium is just the first - and probably a less significant - phase of the Ripkens' plans in their hometown. In honor of their father, Cal Ripken Sr., whom they regard as the finest teacher of baseball who ever lived, they are establishing a baseball academy where boys can come for summer camps to hone their skills.

The 50-acre complex is expected to cost in excess of $30 million - $14 million of which will be paid by the state, county and city. Ripken's business group is responsible for the rest.

Cal Ripken says he was always pretty good at baseball, but because his father was a manager in the minor leagues through all the years he was growing up, he developed an uncommon understanding and love of the game.

"We always referred to Dad as the `encyclopedia of baseball,'" Ripken says. "I was in an enviable position in a way. If I had a question about hitting or pitching or catching, everything, I was always in a position to get an answer. I wonder sometimes about other kids when they have those questions. Where do they go to get their answers?"

The academy's draw - besides the prospect of meeting Cal Ripken - will be the fields. The Ripkens plan to build six. First will be a miniature replica of Camden Yards, complete with a warehouse in right field. Workers have begun grading the site.

Then, they'll build youth-sized versions of Memorial Stadium, Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park with its famous left-field wall - the Green Monster.

"Can you imagine as a kid hitting a double off the Green Monster?" Bill Ripken asks. "Who knows, he might never play past that day, but he'll always have that memory of being out on that field, and he'll say, `I hit a ball off mini-Fenway's Green Monster.'

"There were more things Dad taught us than baseball. There's a right way and a wrong way to go about things, and that you make lasting memories by going about things the right way," Bill Ripken says. "That memory on the field of a kid who hits a ball off that wall and gets on second base - chances are, he's never going to have a chance to play with the real Green Monster, but this will be a way to create some memories, to have a lifetime experience."

The ambience of Ripken's new stadium doesn't rub off on everyone. The construction workers say they don't particularly care about baseball and don't feel anything one way or the other about the job. If it were a fishing pier or a boat dock, they say, then you might have something.

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