When the Aberdeen IronBirds first began playing baseball in Harford County in 2002, a ticket to see the Orioles' Class-A short-season affiliate play was a hot commodity.
During their first year, despite finishing with a losing record, the IronBirds drew 231,935 fans for 38 games, the second-highest total in the New York-Penn League. They followed that up in 2003 with 234,143 fans, an average of 6,162 per game, and the second most in the NYPL for the second consecutive season. Attendance continued to be steady through the team's first decade in Aberdeen, but there was a drop-off in 2013, as the organization went from 244,974 fans in 2012 to 189,879 in 2013, even though the team reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Enter new general manager Joe Harrington.
Harrington was named general manager for the Aberdeen IronBirds Feb. 27. A former assistant general manager for the Lakewood BlueClaws, the Philadelphia Phillies' single-A affiliate, Harrington brings with him to Aberdeen minor league baseball experience and a drive to have a great fan experience at IronBirds games.
"We are going to get back after it," Harrington said of the attendance numbers. "For me, it obviously has to do with Mr. [Cal] Ripken [Jr.] and the mindset he has and the staff have had since the beginning of time. That is something I hope to continue. For us, just looking at the economics and the times we are in, people might not be able to make all games. We are going to look to introduce more group outings or more opportunities for fans in the area to come to games."
As a general manager of a minor league team, Harrington leads all ticket sales efforts. He also oversees the front-office staff and game-day operations.
During the season, his job frequently involves long hours. But Harrington said he had always wanted to work in sports, and watching fans enjoy themselves at a game was his No. 1 priority.
"The hours are long, but it's very rewarding to see a family leaving the ballpark, with a smile on their face, and high-fiving them as they walk out of the ballpark," Harrington said. "To be able to see that on a nightly basis is great. It really is."
Before coming to Aberdeen, Harrington spent nine seasons working with a variety of minor league teams in New Jersey. While the move to Maryland has brought a different environment, Harrington said, he enjoys the new setting.
"The first day I came down, there were 10 people there to welcome me," Harrington said. "It's been very welcoming. … There are always opportunities, I think, that lend itself to the local flavor, and I am enjoying what Maryland and Aberdeen have to offer."
Harrington said the staff at Ripken Stadium was gearing up for one of its best seasons yet. The Extra Innings Café, located behind home plate in the stadium, has been redesigned. The IronBirds have also added a deck area along the third-base line, which is sponsored by Natty Boh.
Upgrading the stadium's amenities and looking to do more with group sales are just part of Harrington's plan to continue Ripken Stadium's success in Aberdeen. As the GM of an Orioles affiliate and a proud supporter of the Ripken Way, Harrington said a true Orioles game-day experience begins the moment you walk in the gate -- whether you're in Aberdeen or Baltimore.
"It's all about providing entertainment for people who want to come out," Harrington said. "We're the front door for Birdland, and I think people are going to see that."