ABERDEEN -- Maybe it shouldn't have come this easily, or quickly, but all that separated the boys from their dream was a heavy metal gate. It was 2 p.m., not too long after the three friends had arrived. Already striding by was the reason for their journey, Cal Ripken Jr., whose signature on their commemorative Cal baseball and commemorative Cal photograph would mean so, so much.
"Unbelievable," said Chris Lupton, at 19 the elder of the trio, after the Baltimore Orioles' former shortstop passed a few steps away, shielded only by the metal gate. The Westminster teen-ager squeezed his face tighter between the bars. He had driven 1 1/2 hours for a scrawl that said Cal Ripken Jr. "You see him in Baltimore -- you can't even get close."
This wasn't Baltimore, but a new minor-league ballpark. Ripken Stadium may have the familiar green look of Oriole Park at Camden Yards down the interstate, but it lacks the big-time scale and distance. Instead, it is a cozier kind of place, one where every seat is an easy toss from the infield, and its inspiration can walk so close that Lupton would spend the rest of the afternoon not just hoping for but expecting another glimpse.
"Just to, like, talk to him would be cool," Lupton said, oblivious to the whirl of last-minute preparations at the 5,270-seat, $18 million ballpark at Exit 85 on Interstate 95. A day before opening, Ripken Stadium served up the standard buzz, hum and whir of 11th-hour finishing work, from the drone of generators to the whoosh of power washers to the steady ring of a fire-alarm test that wouldn't stop.
Up and off to Lupton's left, Ted Stafilatos of Bel Air power-washed off the dirt and tire tracks that 20 months of construction had deposited on the concrete concourse. To the right, Murel White and Jerry Wendler, both of Baltimore, glued letters to the sides of rows that fans with tickets to today's opening night sellout will need to locate their seats.
"First time I came up here," recalled Wendler, who had dropped off the rows of green-backed seats in January, "all this stuff was open steel. Watching them lay down the concrete, the block, the walls, and then painting and hooking up the sound system, to right now -- it's just amazing how much got done."
In the press box above, Dan Poole of Baltimore tried to make sense of the techno-talk of B-link, fonts and Vision 7000 that explains operation of the stadium's video screen and scoreboard. Poole learned how to display images on the Jumbotron, and he tinkered with displaying chants and cheers. "No, there's no spell check," his instructor intoned, as a technician nearby scratched his head over the mobile production studio.
Ripken Stadium is the latest constellation in the Orioles' firmament. The team is the Baltimore ball club's seventh minor-league affiliate, a Single-A farm team of 19- to 21-year-olds who have shown enough promise during spring stints in Florida to merit 76 games against teams such as the Brooklyn, N.Y., Cyclones and the Williamsport, Pa., Crosscutters -- the New York-Penn League co-champion and tonight's opponent.
For stargazing fans, making the team and its home all the more attractive is their association with the Ripken family. Cal and his brother Bill, who grew up in this small city in Harford County, plan on surrounding the facility with a collection of Little League ballparks modeled after Camden Yards, Memorial Stadium, Fenway Park and the like. The complex should take up 50 acres and cost $30 million.
"We are under the gun with less than 36 hours to go," Bill Ripken said yesterday. The gates will open at 5:30 p.m. Outside, there will be face painters, balloon contortionists and the Major League Baseball road show. Inside, before the game starts at 8:05 p.m., there will be a number of surprises that club and stadium officials refused to divulge. "They're under tight wraps," said Jeff Eiseman, the general manager.
Although the stadium may give off the feel of Camden Yards, it is its own place, Eiseman emphasized. Certainly, it is smaller, with six skyboxes and two levels. And it emanates all of the small-time charm typical of minor-league ballparks. Charles Wildberger, who parked cars at Memorial Stadium before leaving for a job outside Albany, N.Y., stopped by yesterday afternoon for a peek and pronounced Ripken Stadium all right.
"I was born about 60 years too soon," the 62-year-old said, traveling back to New York after spending Father's Day with his father in Baltimore. "Never had anything like this when I was playing ball. Never had anything like this when my kids were playing ball. Nothing this nice."
Susan Wildberger, his camera-snapping wife, added, "Our sons will be upset because we saw this before they did."