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Cal's Field of Dreams

August 22, 2006
By Jim Henneman

If you build it, they will come.

It was six-and-a-half years ago that Cal Ripken Jr. went to Annapolis to present to the state legislature the master plan for the baseball complex that now bears his family name in his home town of Aberdeen.

(Courtesy of M.J. Slack)
In reality, that plan was the vision of a real life "Field of Dreams." What has evolved in such a short span of time, even he admits is hard to comprehend. "It's been pretty miraculous to think that we've gotten this far, this soon," Ripken said.
When he went to Annapolis, shortly before spring training of what would be his next-to-last major league season, the big news was the proposal to build a stadium that would bring a minor league team to Harford County. But another part of the presentation focused on the prospect of a potential baseball academy, complete with youth fields that would replicate some of the game's great parks.

It was an ambitious program, some might have said too ambitious at the time. But in another year, Ripken's career would be in its second phase, almost before his playing days were over. The Babe Ruth League had already named its 12-and-under division after the legendary Oriole, and the wheels were soon spinning to relocate the Cal Ripken World Series.

Last weekend, the fourth Aberdeen World Series was wrapped up. The series was the second to be held on the complex's signature field, Cal Sr.'s Yard, a youth-sized version of Camden Yards, with a soon-to-be-completed hotel beyond the right field wall presenting a warehouse-like backdrop that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

When the new regulation field under construction is completed it will be more like a baseball campus and elsewhere on the grounds is an imitation Fenway Park, complete with a 24-foot high "Green Monster" in left field. The complex also includes a brick-lined Wrigley Field and a no-frills Memorial Stadium, each of which were used during the most recent eight-day tournament, with Cal Sr.'s Yard the site for all of the action during the last three days.

But what has transpired is much more than hosting one division of the Babe Ruth League World Series, or housing the IronBirds minor league baseball team. For Ripken and brother Bill, it is a hands-on teaching and learning experience.

(Courtesy of M.J. Slack)
Operating under the umbrella of Ripken Baseball, they have established the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which is dedicated to using the game as a tool to educate youth. And, if you look closely, you can see Ripken Sr.'s footprints all around a complex that is unlike any other.

First and foremost, Ripken Sr. was a teacher and instructor. "Practice doesn't make perfect -- perfect practice makes perfect," was his favorite expression during an Oriole career that spanned 35 years as a minor league player, manager, coordinator and major league coach and manager.

The family patriarch was also a stickler for details. If the grounds at the Orioles' minor league complex weren't in as in shape as they should be, he'd be on the tractor dragging the infield, helping rebuild the pitching mounds or lining the fields. No task was too big or too menial.

That was his way, the "Ripken Way," the slogan used in conjunction with the on-site program as well as with the camps held around the country.

But it is the Aberdeen complex that is the crown jewel of Ripken Baseball. And, though the plans were first revealed during the 2000 session of the state legislature, they were a long time in the making.

"We started thinking about it as early as 1991-92," Ripken said of the idea that perhaps not coincidentally corresponded to Memorial Stadium's last year and Camden Yards' first. "We met with the Disney people and shared some different ideas."

By the time his playing days were over, Ripken was ready to move on. The stadium at Aberdeen was the visible focal point, but the grand scheme of things was much broader, directed more at youth activities than the professional side of the game. The dream was to build this complex, using major league parks as a theme with Cal Sr.'s Yard as the centerpiece.

If there was going to be a replica of Camden Yards, it wouldn't be complete without a warehouse, but making it work took some time. "We looked at the possibility of an office building, but that really didn't work because there was plenty of available office space in Harford County," Ripken said. "But the hotel works because of (the accessibility to) I-95. Plus it looks great."

Sitting in the stands of Cal Sr.'s Yard on the eve of the finals of the Cal Ripken World Series, he was asked if he ever stops to think how his dad would react to this vast undertaking.

"All the time," Ripken said without hesitation. "Actually, I see a lot of dad in Bill -- they were doing some power washing the other day and he jumped right in to help out. That's how he was. If he was here, he'd be dragging the infield, or hosing it down. He'd be doing something."

Ripken gets most of the credit for putting this operation together and, along with his brother, making it work. But clearly it was Ripken Sr. who formulated the blueprint -- not with fancy drawings, but with a strong work ethic that left nothing to chance. It was, very definitely, the cornerstone of the "Ripken Way."

As he got up to leave Cal Sr.'s Yard, Ripken spotted an empty soda bottle under a seat across the aisle. In mid-sentence, and without breaking stride, he quickly scooped up the discarded bottle and deposited it in a trash can on his way out.

Cal Ripken Sr. would've been proud.

Issue 1.18: August 24, 2006