Ripken’s hometown dispute concerns, puzzles Aberdeen residents and him

Cal Ripken Jr. says an escalating dispute with Aberdeen officials has led to “misperceptions in the community” where the baseball Hall of Famer was born and remains a local icon.

The dispute began as a discussion over who should manage weddings, proms, fundraisers and other non-baseball events at Aberdeen-owned Ripken Stadium — where the minor-league baseball team owned by Cal and brother Billy Ripken, the IronBirds, plays its home games.

It has morphed into a debate with the mayor and some City Council members who say the stadium is a financial drain. And it has become a referendum of sorts on the Ripkens and their relationship with the Harford County city of about 16,000.

“There are some misperceptions in the community, and I hear from my mom, my sister and my brother Billy that things are out there,” Ripken Jr. said in an interview. “They live in the community and they go to the grocery store, they go to the gas station, they’re running into people and people are asking questions.”

The dispute puzzles some city residents and worries others who don’t like seeing Aberdeen’s most famous family feuding with city officials. Ripken Jr., who played his whole 21-year Major League Baseball career with the Orioles, lives in Annapolis. His mother Vi, brother Billy and sister Ellie live in Aberdeen.

Ripken Jr., 57, inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, set one of the sport’s most famous records in 1995 when he surpassed Lou Gehrig's mark of 2,130 consecutive games played. Ripken’s streak ended in 1998 at 2,632 games. He was unusual among baseball superstars for playing for his hometown team, having grown up just 35 miles from Baltimore.

The stadium and Ripken Baseball Experience-Aberdeen, which offers youth programs and includes a cluster of ball fields, sit prominently off Interstate 95.

“Yes, I do think there are people concerned,” former mayor Michael E. Bennett said of the dispute.

“I’m not sure the total population of Aberdeen understands exactly because they don’t know the full story,” said Bennett, director of the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce. “That’s kind of the frustrating part. I’m really trying to process why this is happening.”

At its core, the debate is over whether the IronBirds’ business entity should continue to manage non-baseball events at the 6,300-seat stadium. Mayor Patrick McGrady says the stadium is underutilized — the team plays just 38 home games — and that more could be done to attract revenue-generating gatherings. The city has considered whether a professional management organization could better handle the task.

Bennett, whom the 31-year-old McGrady unseated as mayor in 2015, said: “There seems to be a great animosity from the mayor’s standpoint” toward the Ripkens.

McGrady said the dispute is about the stadium, not the Ripkens.

“Basically for the city it’s a non-performing asset,” he said. “We’ve got four years left of bond payments to the tune of $600,000 per year and a facility that’s approaching 20 years old.”

McGrady said he is seeking a better return for city taxpayers from the stadium, which opened in 2002. Tufton Professional Baseball — which handles event management for the Ripkens — keeps revenue from events at the stadium and pays the city an annual licensing fee under a 2013 agreement scheduled to expire Dec. 31.

As negotiations for a new agreement foundered, the Ripkens suggested that their contributions aren’t appreciated by city government. “As the owner of one of Aberdeen’s most visible businesses, we felt like officials running the City of Aberdeen, the town we were raised in and care so much about, didn’t value our existence,” the brothers said in a recent letter to the city.

“I can’t speak to anybody’s feelings,” the mayor replied in an interview. “But the fact is that in every written communication from the city we have expressed our appreciation for their investment in the city and their ongoing presence here. That’s all I can say to that.”

During a recent lunch hour at the The Greene Turtle Sports Bar and Grille across I-95 from the stadium, some expressed mixed feelings about the public feud. Retiree Clinton Purviance, a longtime Aberdeen resident, said the Ripkens are still worshipped as heroes by many in the town — a point emphasized by a framed Ripken jersey hanging on a wall of the restaurant.

“There are people who went to school with him or grew up with his mom and dad. He’s their hero. He came from Harford County and made it big,” Purviance said.

“But you can’t look at it as the Ripkens,” he continued. “You’ve got to look at it as a business deal for both sides. Business is a two-way street and Aberdeen is saying, ‘We want something.’ ”

Bob Frankis, the restaurant’s franchisee, said the city’s investment in the stadium has enabled other businesses to succeed.

“Right across 95 is about six hotels and a bunch of restaurants,” he said. “They don’t stay in business because of local patrons. They stay in business because of Aberdeen Proving Ground, the IronBirds and Ripken Baseball.”

The IronBirds average 4,000 spectators for their games — about two-thirds of the stadium’s capacity. That’s down from the early years when tickets routinely sold out and the team was one of minor league baseball's best stories.

The proximity of the stadium and youth baseball complex still helps the Greene Turtle attract customers, said general manager Michael Murphy. But he wonders if the team’s attendance decline might be related to the aging of the Ripken brand.

“We grew up with Cal Ripken but kids today never saw him play,” Murphy said.

Some said they feared the Ripkens are seeking to divest from the community.

Last year, the Ripkens said their youth complex would no longer host the Babe Ruth League's annual Cal Ripken World Series international tournament for 11 and 12 year olds, as it had for 13 years. They said they would focus on other youth programs instead.

And some are concerned by statements made last year by Ripken Jr.’s representatives that he would like to sell his majority interest in the IronBirds, an Orioles farm team. He said he’s still committed to Harford County and that Ripken Baseball wants to maintain a minority interest in the team.

“We’re looking to take on a strategic partner and really focus our resources on the kids’ side” of his businesses, he said.

Meanwhile, once-private stadium negotiations burst into public view this week. First, Ripken Jr. and IronBirds general manager Matt Slatus met with The Aegis, the local newspaper, which is part of The Baltimore Sun Media Group. Then, the mayor and three City Council members sent a letter to Aberdeen citizens saying “the audience might have heard a different story” had City Council members been present.

“This has been an ongoing discussion for many, many months,” McGrady said in an interview. “And the City Council has been very diligent about not having these conversations occur in public.”

Ripken said the newspaper meeting was about being “transparent,” not about grandstanding.

On Friday, the team disclosed that the city has proposed selling the stadium. The Ripkens say almost no professional minor-league team owns its stadium and they’re not interested in buying.

McGrady said terms of the stadium sale proposal would be revealed at a news conference Monday.

He said the goal is to strike the best possible deal for city taxpayers and that the Ripkens are being treated no better or worse than any other business.

“Whether we’re dealing with people who clean carpets in City Hall or business developers or baseball superstars, the city doesn’t have a problem dealing with anybody,” the mayor said.

jebarker@baltsun.com

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