Kids sweat it out to be the champs

The Cal Ripken World Series draws youth players from all over the globe for a week of playing ball.

August 14, 2005|By Sarah Merkey | Sarah Merkey,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The temperature at Cal Ripken Sr.'s yard at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen was just short of unbearable - and rising.

Still, 15 teams of eager 12-year-old boys crowded the stadium in full uniform, ready to play ball. This year's Cal Ripken World Series, which kicked off Friday, is the latest nationally televised sports events in Harford County, and the first time the series will be played in its permanent home, a state-of-the-art youth ballpark modeled to scale after Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"They all achieved to get here," John Maroon, a spokesman for Ripken Baseball said Friday, the opening day of the tournament. "They're the elite 12-year-old baseball teams from around the world."

The competitors include five international teams, eight regional champions, the Maryland State Champion and a Harford County representative from Hickory/Fountain Green.

The series is the pinnacle of a summer's worth of play in the Babe Ruth League Inc. for the 12-and-under division, which was renamed in honor of Cal Ripken in 1999.

For Colten Altmannshofer, a 12-year-old pitcher and left fielder from Canada, the heavy practice schedule - sometimes two each day - was worth the effort.

"This is the first time ever a 12-year-old team from Nanaimo came to the world series," he said.

While Colten has been in Aberdeen this past week preparing for the games, his parents planned to fly in this weekend to watch him play and to enjoy the area.

And as exciting as the competition is, the fans that come to town to watch and spend tourist dollars is another welcome event altogether.

Last year, the tournament had an estimated $2 million economic impact on the county, said Denise Carnaggio, spokeswoman for the county Office of Economic Development. "The hotels and restaurants do well," she said.

"Harford County has really emerged as a sports destination," Carnaggio said. "We've had two nationally televised events back to back: [the Cal Ripken World Series] and the McDonald's LPGA."

Maroon estimates that last year, more than 10,000 people not affiliated with any particular team came to Ripken Stadium to watch one or more of the games, a number that organizers feel will continue to grow.

"People will be curious. The awareness of the event is growing," Maroon said.

"All the boys are excited," said Julia Call, whose son Brandon plays for the team from Calvert County, the Maryland State Champions. "All the parents are just as excited as the players."

To get to the Ripken World Series, it takes dedication from parents as well as players. Summer vacations are canceled or rescheduled, and weekend tournaments are time consuming.

"The season started in April, and since then it's been nonstop baseball," Call said. "But it's been enjoyable."

Donna Hott, whose son Andrew Gilley plays for Hickory/ Fountain Green, agrees that the experience is worth it.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime event," Hott said.

Among the opening weekend events was a skills competition with Cal and Billy Ripken, and a picnic.

"He's a good person," said Jerome Kyler, 12, of the Calvert County team after meeting Cal Ripken Jr.

Jerome, who plays shortstop, hit two home runs in the Maryland State Championship game that brought the team to the Ripken World Series.

"I just love playing," he said. "I don't really do anything but play sports, but I have fun anyway."

An intriguing aspect of the Babe Ruth League is the use of host families, volunteers that offer to house the young ball players and serve as surrogate parents before and during the tournament. In addition to driving them to games and practices, host families show the boys life in Maryland.

"Families will take those who they're hosting to show off their town, to sample local foods," Carnaggio said.

Tournament play will culminate in an international championship game and a national championship game. The winners will play in the World Series title game. The team from Mexico has won the title for the past two years and is back this year.

The last three games of the series, Saturday and Aug. 21, will be broadcast live nationwide on Comcast SportsNet and Satellite XM radio.

For Dashawn Torney, 12, from Calvert County, the series is a delicate balance between having a good time and serious competition.

"It's always fun," he said. "Except when we lose."

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