- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

ABERDEEN, Md. — Little League still may be big-time youth baseball and its World Series the darling of ESPN and all that. But the bloom is off the all-American rose, thanks to the Danny Almonte age scandal and the perception of youth sports out of control that has attached negativity to the term “Little League parent.”

Now Little League is forced to share its Americana pie with a name that has its own formidable brand recognition: Cal Ripken.

Ripken is en route to becoming a force within youth baseball and could give Little League stiff competition. He has conducted youth clinics and camps around the country for several years and is in the process of building a baseball academy at his Aberdeen complex that could become the premier youth baseball facility in the country.

While Little League plays its high profile World Series in Williamsport, Pa., the Cal Ripken Division of Babe Ruth Baseball is putting on its own World Series at Ripken Stadium, where Cal’s minor league Aberdeen Ironbirds play.

This is the first year for the series at Aberdeen after three years at locations in Illinois and Indiana. Ripken, who was at the ballpark signing autographs yesterday, said he is very pleased with the way the tournament has been run so far.

“It has been going very smooth, and I’m very proud of it,” he said. “It has always been my intention to bring this event to my hometown, and this is the first step in making it the permanent home of the World Series.”

Fifteen teams — 10 from the United States (including teams from Upper Montgomery County and Glen Allen, Va.) and five international teams, from South Korea, Australia, Mexico, Canada and the Dominican Republic — have been playing at Ripken Stadium since Saturday, with the title game scheduled for Sunday and televised nationally on Fox Sports Net. As of yesterday, 4,200 tournament and 5,800 day passes had been sold.

“We want this to be a huge event someday,” said Billy Ripken, co-owner of Ripken Baseball. “It’s a good product to watch, so there is no reason why this thing can’t be big.”

For teams like Sylvan Hills, Ark., it is a very big event. “It’s been fantastic playing here,” said Randy Dillon, manager of the Sylvan Hills team. “It’s a great setting for a kids’ World Series. I think having Cal Ripken’s name with this is having a big impact, and I think this thing will only get bigger and bigger. I can see it becoming a big television event, like the Little League World Series.”

There is it again — Little League. You can’t get away from the comparisons, despite the fact that the Ripkens say they are not trying to compete with Little League.

“They have 12-year-olds playing baseball, and we have 12-year-olds playing baseball,” Billy Ripken said. “Are there enough 12-year-olds out there to go around? Sure.

“What Little League has accomplished is pretty amazing, all the coverage and ESPN and ABC, they are all over it,” Ripken continued. “But I think what we are putting together here is going to be as special, and I think people will realize that. That will only be good for youth baseball.”

To accommodate the series, the Ironbirds’ home ballpark was modified into a field suitable for 12-year-olds. That meant a temporary fence — 220 feet down the lines, and 241 feet in center field (the normal dimensions of the ballpark are 310 feet down the lines and 404 feet in center) — and covering the minor league infield with sod and digging out a new infield.

“It took a couple hundred tons of clay, about 15,000 square feet of sod and 100 tons of sand,” said Murray Cook, with Sportsturf Services, Major League Baseball’s field consultant.

Next year, the Ripkens hope to move the tournament to its permanent home next to Ripken Stadium — the Camden Yards replica youth baseball field. The Camden Yards replica will be one of six fields patterned after classic major league ballparks.

The field is referred to as “Senior’s Yard,” in deference to the man who had a devotion to teaching the right way to play the game — former Baltimore Oriole coach and manager Cal Ripken Sr., who died in 1999.

“I think Dad would enjoy this to no end,” Billy Ripken said. “He would love talking to the coaches, like we have been doing, talking about what happened during the games, the plays. He would enjoy sitting here watching the games and maybe a couple of days after a game, pulling a youngster aside and ask him if he remembered what happened in the third inning. He might say, ‘In that situation, you might think about doing this.’ And the kid would say yeah, like a light bulb went off. That’s what he did for us when we were growing up.”

It is the Ripken legacy, started by Senior and now carried on by Cal and Billy, that attracted the Babe Ruth officials to make the offer to Cal in 1999 to put his name on a division of players.

For years, Babe Ruth baseball was known as the league up from Little League, for players 13 and older. But in 1982, Babe Ruth officials decided to go head-to-head with Little League, and started a 5-to-12 year-old class known as the Bambino Division. It languished in obscurity until it was renamed Cal Ripken Baseball. About 600,000 players take part in Cal Ripken, nearly two-thirds of Babe Ruth participants.

That is about one-fifth the players who participate in Little League. That difference is likely to shrink, and it may even come to the point where there could be a game between the Little League champion and the Cal Ripken Division champion.

“I think that would be tremendous,” Billy Ripken said. “I don’t care who wins. The kids would be the winners. I think that would be great for baseball.”

I think the thought of such a game would make Little League officials break out in a cold sweat worse than one caused by a handwritten birth certificate.

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