As deadline looms, no deal between Ripken, Aberdeen in stadium dispute

The business group managing Cal and Billy Ripken’s minor-league baseball team in Aberdeen says it has made its final pitch to the city to continue to manage — and collect revenue from — non-baseball events at Aberdeen-owned Ripken Stadium.

But as of late Friday it appeared unlikely the city would act on the offer before an end-of-the-year deadline when the group’s current contract expires.

That, said Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady, means booking of non-baseball events — which generated about $250,000 in revenue in 2017— will likely shift to the city on Monday.

“At this point, the city is going to be managing the facility starting Jan. 1,” McGrady said. “Unless something changes between now and three days from now, then that looks like the path forward.”

Currently, day-to-day maintenance and bookings at the stadium are the responsibility of Tufton Professional Baseball, which manages the team that was acquired by the Ripkens in 2002. But capital projects such as structural repairs fall to the city, which continues to pay the debt service of $600,000 a year.

For months, the IronBirds’ management organization has been negotiating with the city to try to retain the license to book non-team events, which include church activities, weddings and charity fundraisers.

John Maroon, a spokesman for Cal Ripken Jr., the Hall of Fame former Orioles’ player, and his brother, Billy, said Friday it would be premature to provide details of what he called “a long-term, final offer” Tufton has made to the city.

Matt Slatus, the IronBirds’ general manager, also declined comment.

McGrady said Aberdeen is close to a deal with another firm, Huntley Sports Group, to manage non-baseball activities at the Aberdeen IronBirds’ stadium on the city’s behalf.

“I think that Huntley brings a lot to the table in terms of a vision for events -- for exciting things to happen at the stadium,” McGrady said.

McGrady would not rule out the possibility that the city could still reach an agreement with the Ripkens. He said the City Council would need to discuss the brothers’ proposal and that no meeting is scheduled until Jan. 8.

“There is surely a chance – anything can happen,” the mayor said. “At this point, I think we’re farther apart than we are closer together.”

Maroon said last month regardless of whether Tufton retains management of activities at the stadium, the IronBirds are committed to staying in Aberdeen.

Revenue from non-IronBirds activities totaled $250,000 in 2017, according to Tufton. The city got $95,000 of that total this year under an agreement with Tufton, up from $60,000 in 2016.

But McGrady said the 6,300-seat stadium is underutilized — the team plays just 38 home games — and that more could be done to attract revenue-generating gatherings. The city has long considered whether another management organization could better handle the task.

“From the city’s perspective, the stadium is an unlimited liability,” McGrady said. “We’re on the hook for 100 percent of the capital costs and in the last five years that has been $5.2 million.”

The IronBirds, the Orioles' Class A New York-Penn League short-season affiliate, draw an average of about 4,000 fans per game. "Birdland begins in Aberdeen" is a team promotional slogan, referring to its place among the Orioles' farm teams.

In 2015, the Ripkens signed a title sponsor — Leidos, a large national security contractor — and the facility was renamed "Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium." The stadium and Ripken Baseball Experience-Aberdeen, which offers youth programs and includes a cluster of ball fields, sit prominently off Interstate 95.

Cal Ripken Jr., who grew up in Aberdeen, just 35 miles from Baltimore, has expressed frustration with the negotiations. He said a few months ago that the city has not stuck to the "simple issue" of discussing a license agreement and has instead made a series of additional stadium-related proposals intended to maximize its return.

But McGrady said the stadium is a financial drain on the city. In October, the city said it sought to sell the stadium to Tufton, which declined.

"Only four of 159 affiliated professional minor league baseball clubs own their facilities, none of which are in the State of Maryland," Tufton said in reply.

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