By Patrick Gannon
February 7, 2002
UTICA, N.Y.–After a quarter of a century, Utica’s professional baseball team will take the field for the 2002 season and beyond in a different town, with a different name and under new ownership.
Utica Blue Sox owner Bob Fowler has agreed to sell the short-season team for about $3 million to Ripken Baseball, headed by baseball icon Cal Ripken Jr., who will move it to his hometown of Aberdeen, Md.
“Really, I think after 17 years, it just wasn’t fun anymore for me,” Fowler said Wednesday afternoon at a news conference at Hotel Utica.
Thus, the team will begin a new era north of Baltimore as the New York-Penn League affiliate of the Orioles. It will leave the sometimes-criticized Donovan Stadium at Murnane Field for the 6,000-seat Ripken Stadium, which is under construction. The new team hasn’t been named publicly.
The final piece of the drawn-out negotiation process that was largely shielded from the media fell into place Tuesday evening. Fowler and New York-Penn League president Ben Hayes flew to Utica from Florida early Wednesday morning to break the news.
The major sticking point was the proximity of Aberdeen to a separate minor league franchise, the Carolina League’s Wilmington Blue Rocks, which led to a territorial dispute that had to be settled before the deal could be finalized.
Ripken, whose playing career ended after 21 seasons with his retirement in October, said he didn’t view the Utica transaction as an early progression toward getting a full-season team at a higher classification.
“I’m very happy with the short-season format and the entry level into professional baseball,” said Ripken, whose complex in Aberdeen also will include a youth baseball academy with six ballparks modeled after major league stadiums. The centerpiece of the project will be a youth-sized version of Camden Yards named after his father that will be the permanent home of the Cal Ripken World Series.
“What’s happening with the complex is we’re teaching baseball,” Ripken said. “We’re also trying to get USA Baseball to relocate, and a short-season team fits well. I like the format, I like the 38 games, I like the flexibility of utilizing the stadium for teaching and other events. I’m very content with that.”
Ripken removed his biggest obstacle in putting a team in his hometown, the proximity of Class A Wilmington in Delaware, by agreeing to a “partnership” with the franchise that’s still being developed. It could include joint ticket packages and promotions, along with an agreement by the future Hall of Famer to conduct youth baseball clinics in the area.
Matt Minker, president of the Blue Rocks, met with Ripken shortly before the Super Bowl to establish the basis of their partnership. NY-P president Hayes and CL president John Hopkins later gave their approval.
“Clinics would be very high on the list because of the priority on children, but we’re still very much in the preliminary stages,” Minker said. “From the day Cal and I first met, I think we saw eye-to-eye. We’re both interested in what’s best for affiliated baseball, and we’re both committed to kids. Who better to teach kids than Cal Ripken?
“He and I really worked through things on a very easy and positive manner. We’re going to try to make both teams better and serve the communities as best we can.”
Said Ripken: “Matt agreed with me on the value of having stadiums within 35 minutes, right off I-95. I shared with him the plans to have additional events, possibly international competitions, possibly different teachings in different stadiums. We explored all of that. Instead of looking at it as competition of sorts, I chose to look at it, and Matt and the Blue Rocks did as well, as how we could promote baseball from the grass-roots level on up, how we could work together to make things better for both of us.”
Ripken also indicated he didn’t meet any resistance from Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos, whose biggest issue is the possible relocation of the Montreal Expos to Northern Virginia or Washington, D.C.
“The Orioles and Peter have been tremendously supportive,” Ripken said. “It really wasn’t a matter of talking them into it. It seemed to make sense that if there was going to be baseball in Aberdeen, it should be an Orioles affiliate. Peter always felt that way. I’m very thankful for his support and his vision, as far as the developmental system goes. He sees the value of adding another affiliate.”
Ripken Baseball still must appoint a manager and general manager, with an announcement likely to come at a news conference scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 13, at the Aberdeen Project construction site. Such details are part of the second phase of Ripken’s baseball life, one that’s taken him from the field to the front office.
“It’s certainly different from what I’m used to doing,” he said. “It requires a learning curve on my part, for sure. I’ve found that you have to be patient and stay the course. Maybe it took a little longer because I had to learn, I had to go through things. Getting to this point, you look back and say it was very much worth all the effort.”
Back in Utica, the Blue Sox’ Fowler cited sagging attendance combined with low-priced tickets and the rising cost of operating a minor league franchise as factors in his decision to sell. He said he had begun dipping into his wife’s 401(k) to pay the bills.
He thanked Blue Sox fans and the local businesses that supported the team since he bought it for $75,000 in 1984.
“I thought at that time that we would own it forever . . . and it would be the family business forever,” Fowler said. “But as everybody knows, nothing is forever.”
About the selling price, Fowler said only that Ripken will pay a “record” amount for a New York-Penn League franchise. The last New York-Penn team to be sold garnered $2.3 million a couple of years ago, he said. Fowler had offered the team to a corporate mogul last year for $3 million, but that deal fell through.
Hayes said the New York-Penn League is “thrilled” to have someone of Ripken’s stature as an owner.
Hayes also thanked Fowler and Utica baseball fans for their support of the league since the team joined the league in 1977 as the Utica Blue Jays, a farm team of the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Bob Fowler has been a great citizen of baseball,” Hayes said. “He is by far one of the few owners who truly, truly was in the game for the love of baseball.”
Now, local officials face the daunting task of trying to lure another baseball team to Utica.
A clause in the Blue Sox’s lease agreement with the sports facility authority said that if a deal was made to sell the franchise, the “community” would have 90 days to match the purchase offer and keep the franchise in Utica.
But government officials have said it would be impossible for local governments to match a multimillion-dollar purchase offer, and no local private investors stepped forward publicly to help out.
But there is a glimmer of hope.
“Personally, I think Utica is a good market,” said Hayes. “I would like to see a New York-Penn League team in this market.”
Hayes said some improvements must be made at Murnane Field before Utica could make a strong bid for a new team.
Local officials say they will continue to pursue another professional baseball team.
“We’re certainly planning to move ahead to make the best use of Murnane Field for the community,” Oneida County Executive Ralph J. Eannace Jr. said. “I’ll miss (the Blue Sox), but I hope we won’t be missing professional baseball in Utica for any long period of time.”
Eannace said he was encouraged by a discussion with Hayes about the possibility of bringing another New York-Penn League team to Utica.
The Blue Sox were on the brink of a move last August when Fowler gave a 30-day purchase option on the team to Lawrence Bossidy Jr., chief executive officer of New Jersey-based Honeywell International Inc. But that deal fizzled after Bossidy apparently couldn’t secure financing for a new stadium in his hometown of Pittsfield, Mass.
Gannon’s story appears in today’s editions of the Utica Observer-Dispatch and can also be viewed at the paper’s Website. BA Orioles correspondent Roch Kubatko of the Baltimore Sun also contributed to this report; his story can be accessed online as well.