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IronBirds do things the Ripken Way
Famous ownership blends fan friendliness with youth, pro ball
09/01/2011 12:17 PM ET
Cal Ripken Stadium is the centerpiece of a sprawling baseball complex.
Cal Ripken Stadium is the centerpiece of a sprawling baseball complex. (Benjamin Hill/MiLB.com)
The Aberdeen IronBirds are owned by Ripken Baseball, so it's fitting that they, too, are associated with a formidable streak.

The IronBirds, Class A Short-Season affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, have sold every seat for every game that they've ever played. The New York-Penn League entity, formerly known as the Utica Blue Sox, moved to Aberdeen's fittingly named Ripken Stadium in 2002 and are now putting the finishing touches on its 10th season. It's been a Ripken family affair throughout; Cal serves as the organization's chairman, brother Bill is executive vice president and sister Elly manages the accounting department.

The team's success at the gate has had little to do with the product on the field, however, as the IronBirds have mustered just one winning season in their entire existence. This year's squad is the most dismal yet, as Wednesday's dispiriting 16-1 loss to Tri-City dropped the club to a woeful 22-48. But in the world of Minor League Baseball, such things are secondary to the overall experience.

"I think it took Cal some time to learn and understand that the fans at this level were going to be more interested in the mascots and the Bucket Boys," said Ripken Baseball assistant vice president of sales Aaron Moszer, referencing Wednesday's high-energy, dugout-drumming, between-innings entertainment. "But what we pride ourselves on is the experience that we can provide our customers."

And the IronBirds are only a part of the experience. Though those driving by Ripken Stadium on perpetually bustling Route 95 only see the stadium's façade, beyond the outfield walls lies a sprawling complex consisting of seven youth baseball fields of various dimensions and playing surfaces. This is the essence of Ripken Baseball, what Moszer calls "a cross-pollination between youth and pro."

The seven youth fields form the Ripken Academy, which hosts baseball camps and tournaments from mid-March through October. The premier event at the Academy is the "Cal Ripken World Series," the championship tournament of the Babe Ruth League's 12-year-old division. This year's iteration took place from Aug. 12-21, with Japan emerging victorious. (The event nicely complements the Little League World Series, which runs concurrently and takes place in the New-York Penn League market of Williamsport).

The Cal Ripken World Series has been staged in Aberdeen since 2003, with the first three taking place at Ripken Stadium. This necessitated the IronBirds going on an 18-game road trip in order to accommodate it, representing nearly a quarter of the team's 76-game season. The entire field had to be redone in order to accommodate youth baseball dimensions, with a temporary fence constructed in the outfield. This less-than-ideal arrangement came to an end with the 2006 opening of "Cal Sr.'s Yard," modeled after Baltimore's Camden Yards.

Meanwhile, Ripken Baseball's youth-pro cross-pollination continues unabated. The organization has since added the Augusta GreenJackets and Charlotte Stone Crabs to its roster of Minor League teams, and an additional youth baseball complex is now operating in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

"'Ripken' stands for credibility, durability and integrity," said Moszer. "It's a blessing to be able to use that name but also a challenge. We have to uphold that reputation in everything we do."

Delectable crustaceans: Maryland is a state known for its crab feasts, down-and-dirty affairs featuring claw-cracking mallets, newspaper on the tables and napkins aplenty. The IronBirds have directly incorporated this regional tradition into the nightly concession menu, offering "All-You-Can-Eat Crab" as one of the group ticket options. And down the right-field line stands "Bo Brooks' Crab Shack," offering steamed crabs for $24 a dozen (or $36 for two dozen, or, for the really hungry, $110 a bushel).

"On any given night, there are 200-250 people here eating steamed crab," said Moszer.

A local recommends...: IronBirds pitcher Scott Erbe grew up in Baltimore, and as such is no stranger to crab cuisine. But when asked to pick a favorite, he doesn't hesitate for a second.

"Go to G&M's for crabcakes -- that would be my first recommendation to anyone," he said. "They're the best crabcakes that I've ever had, and I will continue to endorse them for as long as I'm alive."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow him @BensBiz on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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