- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

ABERDEEN, Md. — The Oriole Way may have fallen on hard times, with dwindling attendance at Camden Yards and falling ratings forcing the club to drop some televised games. Up the road, though, the Ripken Way is doing just fine, thank you.

Ripken Baseball is running its first camp at the Aberdeen complex through today, with about 70 youngsters braving blustery weather for a chance to learn pitching, hitting, catching and other elements of the game through an instruction system that began more than 40 years ago in the Baltimore Orioles' minor league system. That's when Cal Ripken Sr. began managing generations of future Orioles players.

At different stations at Ripken Stadium, players were fielding ground balls, taking infield practice, hitting balls into nets and doing other drills with Ripken Baseball instructors including former Orioles infielder Billy Ripken.

"We're learning a lot," said Kyle Miller, a 12-year-old shortstop and pitcher from Kingsville, Md. "The instructors are great. And it's really cool to be here playing in this stadium."

This was just a three-day clinic with 70 kids, but it was a landmark moment for Ripken Baseball because it is the first camp to be held at the "Aberdeen Project," located off Interstate 95. When all is said and done, it could wind up being one of the most popular baseball tourist locations in the country.

Cal and Billy Ripken hope to have a Ripken Youth Baseball Academy that will feature dormitories and playing fields built as replicas of famous major league ballparks, such as Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Camden Yards. The academy will be adjacent to Ripken Stadium, the home of the minor league Aberdeen Ironbirds, the short-season minor league club owned by Cal Ripken that drew 231,935 fans in its augural season last year selling out each of its 38 home games.

The $25 million project will be completed in phases. Over the past several years, Ripken Baseball has relied solely on running clinics and camps around the country. But now the academy will open in June with four youth fields, a training field and a piece of land that Billy Ripken calls "my big flat happy space.

"I think we are looking at 1,200 kids through our programs this summer," he said. "Eventually, we have dorms in our master plan. We are phasing this thing in. We are building as dollars permit. We can't throw it all up at once. We will try to get some usable fields and get some programs started and prove to people that it works, and then we can phase in some other projects."

It really is a remarkable undertaking, the selling of the Ripken brand, particularly when you contrast it to the falling fortunes of the Orioles. The Ironbirds have emerged as one of the most successful minor league operations in the country. They finished second in attendance among short-season clubs, trailing only the Brooklyn Cyclones. They sold out every game last year and likely will do so again this season, which opens with a game June 17 against Brooklyn.

Also, the Ironbirds finished in the top 15 in merchandise sales among all minor league teams 160 teams, from short season to Class AAA last year.

"Considering that we launched our logo as late as we did and missed retail opportunities from such a short start-up period, we are very proud of how we ranked nationally in merchandise sales," general manager Jeff Eiseman said.

And the academy, which will use a Harford County camp facility to house overnight campers until the dormitories are built, will draw even more people to the Aberdeen complex.

"I know so far from the camp signups that there are about 30 states represented, from places like Minnesota, Florida, Arizona," Billy Ripken said. "One of the campers is coming from California, and he is listed as a day camper. That means his parents are coming with him, and they are staying somewhere."

Then, in August the Cal Ripken World Series the Babe Ruth League division for ages 5 to 12 will be at Ripken Stadium for 12 days. There will be 15 teams represented in the league that is giving Little League a run for its money.

"We want this whole place to be a destination spot," Billy said. "They can schedule road trips to come see the games. Our ballpark itself is already a destination. The Ironbirds, we have season ticket holders in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia. Granted they are not full season ticket holders, but they bought packages so they could come up. They have already made it a destination. The minor league ballpark, with as much success as we have had, is a perfect tie-in to what we are doing. People can come spend a week, plan their vacations, drop their kids off to do a camp and do other things in the area."

Maybe even take in a game at Camden Yards, as the Orioles may have to ride the coattails of Cal Ripken Baseball. Some things never change.

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