When the gates open tonight, Cal Ripken Jr. will formally step into the next phase of his life.
With Ripken Stadium requiring only the finishing touches, the Iron Man will oversee the official debut of the new Aberdeen IronBirds - the Orioles' affiliate in the short-season Single-A New York-Penn League - as a team owner.
Williamsport's Crosscutters supply the opposition for the 8:05 p.m. game, which promises to culminate a night of ceremony and memories for all in the standing-room-only crowd of more than 6,000.
With many features similar to those at Camden Yards, including green seats, the facility will house a team that has been in existence little more than three months.
"The quality is unbelievable," Ripken said yesterday after a two-hour tour and interview session with ESPN. "Essentially, this is a big-league park that is just a smaller size. Everything is major-league caliber. It's a beautiful place."
"I think we will be providing a unique experience," added IronBirds general manager Jeff Eiseman. "If we're behind 11-0, we hope the people won't even know what the score is. We hope they'll be that entertained."
And there will be people, lots of them. Despite a limited time frame in which to sell tickets, Eiseman said Ripken Stadium will play to 92 to 93 percent capacity this year, a number that could climb even more depending on walk-up patronage.
Ground was broken for the stadium in October 2000, but Ripken's idea for his retirement years was not minor-league ownership. He strove to work with youth interested in baseball and envisioned a complex with numerous fields for teaching and development.
That phase of the project will follow, but Aberdeen was already in the market to acquire a franchise after the ill-fated venture into the independent Atlantic League ended after one season.
"It wasn't my goal to be the owner of this team," Ripken said. "But my teaching project and Aberdeen's bid to get a team just kind of merged. Then Mr. [Peter] Angelos provided us with an Oriole affiliate, and it all worked out.
"We started behind the eight ball, but the support of the community and the area has been amazing. Long before we even had a team, people were buying club boxes making sure this would happen. It'll be fun when the gates do open and we see the stadium at its full life."
Eiseman is being coy about the opening-night festivities, but Vi Ripken, the first lady of Harford County baseball, will throw out the first ball and parachutists are scheduled to land in the stadium.
The Orioles' farm system teams have been struggling this season, but director of player development Don Buford said there is ample personnel to stock what is the seventh affiliate.
"This year we drafted more collegiate and older players with an eye on the New York-Penn League," he said. "Ten of those are on the Aberdeen roster." The team will be a mixture of draft choices, players coming from extended spring training and a few recovering from injuries.
Included on the team are this year's fourth-round pick, outfielder Tim Gilhooley, from the University of the Pacific (Calif.), and outfielder Gregg Davies, an Olney resident who was drafted in the 21st round out of Towson University.
Among the more experienced players, pitcher Matt Tate was 5-5 at Rookie-level Bluefield in 2001, and the catching corps has three veterans of the system in Jon Kessick, Michael Russell and Kevin Webster.
Tonight's starter is Ryan Keefer, who finished second among all short-season relievers with 15 saves for Appalachian champion Bluefield last summer.
When asked whether she envisioned her son some day owning a team, Vi Ripken responded, "Who could have?"
"But I'll tell you, that big guy is walking around with something because everything seems to always turn out fine," she added.
"This is a Cal Ripken thing," Eiseman said. "That is the keynote signature to this. We're dealing with a national figure, an extraordinary figure who happens to be in our back yard. We're caretakers of what he spent much of his life building."
The Ripken Way. It will show in Ripken Stadium.
League: Short-season Single-A New York-Penn
General manager: Jeff Eiseman
Manager: Joe Almaraz
Ballpark: Ripken Stadium
Directions to stadium: Take Interstate 95 north to Exit 85 and go left toward Churchville over 95. At Gilbert Road, take a right. Stadium is on the right.
Ticket prices: Premium boxes, $13; field boxes, $11; loge boxes, $9; terrace boxes, $8; reserved, $6.
Game times: Monday through Friday, 7:05 p.m. except opening night, 8:05 p.m.; Sunday, 1:05 p.m. except Aug. 11 and 18, 4:05 p.m.
Radio: WJSS (1330 AM)