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Ripken machine picks up steam
by Will Lingo
Nothing Cal Ripken Jr. does off the baseball field will ever reach the stature of what he accomplished on the field, but his off-field endeavors have been much more than a retirement hobby.
Ripken Baseball is the company Ripken put together after his retirement, and he has surrounded himself with capable people. Now Ripken Baseball is growing into a significant force in minor league and youth baseball, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
The organization was in the news most recently as it broke ground on a $22 million hotel project just beyond right field of its centerpiece youth field, known as Cal Sr.'s Yard. The park is designed to be a scaled-down version of Camden Yards when it's completed, and the hotel will serve as its scaled-down B&O Warehouse.
It's all part of a growing complex that makes up the base of the Ripken Baseball machine in Aberdeen, Md., which is Ripken's hometown. It started with Ripken Stadium, a 6,000-seat ballpark that opened in 2002 as the home of the New York-Penn League's Aberdeen Ironbirds.
Next came the construction of several youth fields nearby, as well as practice fields, designed to provide top-notch facilities for youth clinics as well as a home for the Cal Ripken World Series. Babe Ruth Baseball put Ripken's name on its 11- and 12-year-old division after his playing career ended, and he moved the division's World Series to the Aberdeen complex in 2002.
The complex continues to grow, even beyond the addition of the hotel, with plans for a condominium development, a shopping center and a movie theater on land nearby. The entire sprawling development sits on about 112 acres off Interstate 95, a little less than an hour north of Baltimore.
“We're calling Aberdeen our ‘hot corner' in Harford County,” Thomas Sadowski, the county's director of economic development, told The Daily Record of Baltimore.
Minor League Growth
Ripken's plans don't stop in Aberdeen, though. Ripken Baseball bought a team in the South Atlantic League this year--the Augusta Greenjackets--and immediately got to work beefing up the front office and getting the market excited about baseball again.
A visit from Ripken always helps with that, but the organization also plans more significant changes in the way the franchise does business behind the scenes, from group sales to ballpark maintenance. The whole Greenjackets franchise is in the midst of an extreme makeover, and if you try to go to the team's Website (greenjacketsbaseball.com), all you'll get is a blank screen with a phone number and a request to come back later.
The Augusta and Aberdeen markets aren't the same, but Ripken Baseball hopes to use many of the same principles to make the Greenjackets as successful as the Ironbirds have been. The Ironbirds have averaged greater than their ballpark's listed capacity in each of their four seasons, drawing 239,748 fans this season, an average of 6,309 a game, to set another franchise record.
The counties the Ironbirds and Greenjackets play in have roughly the same population--around 200,000, with Aberdeen the larger of the two--but Augusta has not drawn nearly as well. The Greenjackets fell all the way to 123,545 fans this year, or just over 2,000 fans a game, and though they play in a ballpark that's just 10 years old, Lake Olmstead Stadium can't hold a candle to Ripken Stadium.
And if that's not enough of a challenge, rumors persist that Ripken Baseball is looking to buy a minor league franchise on the West Coast as well. A few of the California League's distressed properties, as they say in the real estate business, would make sense, but those too would be significant rebuilding projects.
Building The Base
The projects don't stop there. Ripken Baseball has a foundation named in Cal Ripken Sr.'s honor, and a souvenir and memorabilia company as well. The Aberdeen complex played host to the Aflac High School All-American Game for the past two years.
But the hotel project represents the first big foray into a non-baseball project. Ripken Baseball is working with Marriott and Baltimore's H&S Properties, the company that developed the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel on the Inner Harbor. The Ripken hotel, expected to open in August, will include two different Marriott brands. Of the 198 rooms planned, 120 will be occupied by Courtyard by Marriott and the other 78 will be occupied by the Residence Inn.
Still in its finishing stages, Cal Sr.'s Yard is owned and operated by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. The entire ballpark, not including the hotel project, is being paid for by corporate and individual donations. Everything is expected to be finished in the summer of 2006 in time for the 2006 Cal Ripken World Series.
In addition to giving visitors to the baseball complex a convenient place to stay, Ripken Baseball also will provide conference rooms and a banquet facility for the growing county as a whole. And it's not just baseball bringing people to town. The county will also get about 5,000 new military jobs that are moved to Aberdeen Proving Ground due to military base closures around the country.
A little luck and a lot of hard work made Ripken's first career a huge success, and it looks like the next stage of his life is moving in the same direction.