- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

It is Opening Day for Cal Ripken.

However, it is unlike any other season's beginning for baseball's Iron Man. He will wear a business suit rather than his famous No. 8 uniform. There will be a sell-out crowd some 6,000 fans but a far cry from the throngs who came to see Ripken in the Baltimore Orioles' openers during his playing career.

While the enthusiastic faithful won't see the future Hall of Famer display his prowess with a bat and glove, they will see an accomplishment that would make a grand slam pale in comparison. Ripken is the owner of the Aberdeen IronBirds, an Orioles' minor league team that he bought and located in his hometown. The IronBirds debut tonight in state-of-the-art Ripken Stadium, a field of dreams brought to life courtesy of Aberdeen's favorite son.

"I'm a rookie all over again," said Ripken, who retired last year after 21 major league seasons. "There's an excitement and curiosity that I don't know as a owner. I have a zest to learn. New experiences excite me. Dad always said, 'If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.'"

Ripken Stadium, where the IronBirds will play host to the Williamsport (Pa.) Crosscutters in a New York-Penn League game, is the first ballpark and centerpiece of an extensive project under way just off I-95 north of Baltimore. Next month, groundbreaking for a $6 million miniature version of Camden Yards, complete with a warehouse, will take place. It will be the first of six small-scale replicas of major league parks that will house the Ripken Baseball Academy for youngsters.

The small Orioles Park will be named in memory of Cal Ripken Sr., and will play host to the Cal Ripken World Series, the younger division of the Babe Ruth League for players up to age 12, starting next August.

"You get your energy from your work," Ripken said. "Baseball is my work. You can't play forever. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do afterwards. It came clearer to me as time went on. I knew I wanted to have an influence on baseball and be a positive influence on kids. I knew I had a platform. I grew up in the game of baseball, and had the resources to do it. It was something I wanted to do. The transition from playing wasn't that tough. I was moving in this direction for a while and dove into it after I retired. That probably made it easier to stop playing."

Ripken has taken some leisure time since hanging up his spikes and is spending more time at home with his family. He even learned to ski, which was discouraged when he was a player.

"It really felt goofy at first," he said. "For one of the first times in my life, I felt uncoordinated."

Ripken has taken advantage of his more flexible schedule since retiring, while being immersed in the Aberdeen project.

The Iron Man could be fighting back a few tears as his new business opens tonight. The blue-collar hero, who owns the longest consecutive games played streak in the major leagues at 2,632, expects to get choked up when his mother, Vi, throws out the first pitch. His brother Billy, who also played for Baltimore when Cal Sr. was the manager and was instrumental in creating the complex, will be on hand.

"I'll be both nervous and excited," said Ripken, who will sit in the owner's box on the luxurious club level. "It will be great to see mom throw out the first pitch. Somebody asked me, 'How do you think Dad would feel?' I think he would be proud of it. I get happiness thinking of Dad, knowing the thing he would want to do most is wear a uniform and throw batting practice. It will take me back to my childhood a little bit."

Ripken remembers spending summers growing up around minor league baseball. After the school year closed, the family would pack up and drive to wherever Cal Sr. was managing in the Orioles' minor leagues, whether it was Rochester (N.Y.), Elmira (N.Y.) or Asheville (N.C.). Cal would help out on the field during batting practice, but had to watch games from the stands.

While the 41-year-old Ripken is back in the minors, he still has some major league ambitions. It has been speculated that Ripken could be involved with a Washington franchise should the area get a team. He said he would like to test his knowledge running a major league team.

"I have my eyes open," Ripken said. "One of the things that excites me is to oversee a whole baseball operation from the majors to the minor leagues. It's flattering to be thought of in that sense. I've gone through baseball and have developed opinions and philosophies. That appeals to me. My ideal job would be to do that with the Orioles. When the time is right I would be most interested in that area."

These days, his plate is full as owner of the IronBirds. Ripken purchased the Utica, N.Y., franchise in the offseason and moved it to Maryland. That became the latest gift he gave his hometown to go with the major league-style ballpark complete with sky boxes and open-air cafe, in a minor-league setting, with tickets as low as $6.

Fans are expected to flock to Ripken Stadium. IronBirds officials say all 39 home games this season are close to being sold out. Players are also taking special pride in playing in the park created by one of the sports' all-time greats.

"Cal Ripken is a baseball icon," catcher Kevin Webster said. "To come here and play at a park for a living legend, it is really just an honor. His being the Iron Man, playing every day, it is something you really respect about a player. Until you get to pro ball, you don't really realize how tough it is to play every single day. Cal is bigger than baseball in some ways. This is his team. Playing here is something to tell your kids about."

The IronBirds are one of the lower stages in the minor leagues, and the majority of Aberdeen's players will never reach the big leagues. The team is made up of mainly first- and second-year players. But major-league dreams are alive for the young players, and that unbridled spirit has rekindled a passion in the man who already has achieved all his playing dreams. Ripken is a rookie again only in a different playing field and pursuing another kind of baseball dream.

"It meant something symbolically to me and my family," said Ripken, of his return to the minors. "I grew up watching the game and being around it. It's refreshing to come back and give something back to my hometown of Aberdeen. It will be great to see the ballpark come to life. I feel like a rookie all over again."

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