IronBirds fashion a nest to build on

Owner Ripken says, `It's been a fantastic year'

Minor-League Baseball

September 02, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

By almost any measure, the inaugural season of the Aberdeen IronBirds has been a rousing success.

Spanking-new Ripken Stadium has drawn rave reviews from all who visited, fans have filled the structure to over-capacity for 38 home games and players and management have been elated to be performing for Harford County's first professional sports organization in such pleasant surroundings.

Even persistent rainfall yesterday, which threatened to produce the team's first game cancellation, failed to undermine the overall ardor surrounding the Orioles' affiliate in the short-season New York-Penn League.

The IronBirds' home finale started two hours late in a drizzle and about half the crowd remained to watch a 14-4 victory over the Vermont Expos with upraised umbrellas.

"I have no complaints at all. It's been a fantastic year," said owner Cal Ripken by phone from his Baltimore County home. "I really didn't know what to expect and I had no idea we would do so well. I had good expectations that were exceeded."

"We were betting that Harford County was looking for a pro sports team," said IronBirds general manager Jeff Eiseman. "Considering that we had 4 1/2 months after getting the Utica franchise to sell tickets and get sponsorships going, we are very, very pleased with the results."

But the IronBirds have no plans to sit on their laurels, according to Eiseman. "We see ourselves more as a work in progress," he said.

Despite selling to standing-room-only crowds for every game and finishing second in the league attendance race to a Brooklyn, N.Y., team with a stadium with 2,000 more seats, Aberdeen is exploring ways to accommodate even more loyalists than the 231,935 it drew for the season.

"You feel bad that you don't have enough seats," said Ripken, who, schedule permitting, attended about 40 percent of the IronBirds' home games. "We're challenged by many things, and we're trying to figure out ways to get more people in, redistribute tickets in some way."

Aberdeen has a growing waiting list of more than 1,100 - primarily residents of Maryland's fastest growing county - for tickets.

"I was disappointed with the first go-round in Aberdeen," said Rick Bowlus of Havre de Grace, an avid collector of Ripken memorabilia and diehard fan. "But this time, with Cal involved and some of our local people, I knew this would be a good product. Everything has been done the Ripken Way, without any flaws. I think next year there is going to be an even bigger boom."

Two years ago, the Aberdeen Arsenal played one summer in the independent Atlantic League at Thomas Run Park, a junior college field in neighboring Churchville. It was a cozy arrangement but not well-received; the team folded after one season.

But baseball fever was ignited Feb. 6 of this year with the announcement that the Utica Blue Sox were moving to Maryland, and on June 18, the IronBirds debuted before a standing-room-only audience.

Bowlus attends every game and has traveled on road trips with the team. "The only grumbling I've heard has been about the price of food," he said. "But you've got free parking and low costs for tickets, so how much can you expect?

"And the players here have been absolutely great to the fans, particularly to little kids. This is the kind of operation we have been hoping for. People are coming to me for tickets. We have a waiting list at our house. This season is over and we're already having withdrawal."

The rest of the Ripken family has been highly visible, with brother Bill a team executive, matriarch Vi attending nearly every game and brother Fred and sister Ellen also making appearances at the stadium.

If there is a downside, it is that the team will finish last or next to last in the McNamara Division, depending on the outcome of its final three-game series at Hudson Valley.

Because of his deep involvement with the team and other ventures, Ripken said: "Surprisingly enough, not for one minute have I wished I was out there doing it [playing]. I don't feel the need to be challenged like that. Twenty-one years was long enough."

The next phase of the project is to complete the mini-Camden Yards field, which has already been graded.

"What we need next are usuable fields where kids can play games," he said. "The stands can wait."

To that end, the Cal Ripken World Series - heretofore held in Illinois -will be played in Aberdeen next summer to bring worldwide attention to the complex. If the Camden Yards field is not complete, it will be played in the reconfigured minor-league stadium.

"This is an all-new experience which brings the opportunity to learn," Ripken said. "I'm happy and content with what we've done so far."

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