IronBirds get big monkey off their back with playoff run

A few days before the Aberdeen IronBirds 2013 campaign started back in June, new manager Matt Merullo sat behind his desk in the home-team clubhouse at Ripken Stadium, talking to the press.

The previously untested skipper, who had worked as a professional scout for a decade before joining the Orioles' organization, pointed out to the reporters present that, upon entering the office for the first time, he had moved the manager's desk, the place where young ballplayers' careers change track and sometimes end, from one side of the room to the other.

"I changed things around in here," Merullo, a former Major League catcher, said. "I didn't like how it felt. The desk was tucked way back there where you couldn't see who was coming through the door. I like to see people when they walk past the office. That's just me."

Questions of interior design settled, Merullo explained his outlook for the upcoming campaign, Aberdeen's 12th since setting up shop at Ripken Stadium in 2002.

"All I can say at this point is I'm excited," he said. "I've got a lot to learn. It's like I'm a rookie all over again. It's a nice feeling."

Maybe it was that the rookie-like exuberance carried over to the players. Maybe moving the manager's desk appeased the baseball gods. Maybe it was that Orioles' front office allowed the IronBirds' hottest hitters and pitchers to play out the season in Aberdeen, rather than moving them up the minor-league ladder. Whatever the combination was, it worked, and Merullo and the IronBirds stormed to Aberdeen's first New York-Penn League playoff appearance in team history.

With this year's success, the IronBirds cast off more than a decade of disappointment, lackluster seasons and heartache.

Cal Ripken Jr., Baseball Hall of Fame member and the chairman and founder of Ripken Baseball, said he was very pleased to see his team finally end its post-season drought. 

"I am happy for the guys on the team, and for our community," Ripken said. "Making it to the playoffs at all levels is a great accomplishment, and I am sure that the IronBirds players and coaches are excited. The IronBirds fans have been terrific and very supportive. They have waited a long time for this opportunity, and we look forward to having a full house to cheer on the team Friday."

Prior to clinching the McNamara Division crown on Monday night with a 7-3 victory over the visiting Lowell Spinners, the IronBirds had come close to tasting the post-season only once.

In the 2006 season, a playoff spot was cruelly snatched away from them at the last second. On the final day of the regular season, Aberdeen was clutching the division's second spot, and with it a possible wild card entry. Only a half game ahead of Brooklyn, the IronBirds needed to win the final game, or, failing that, simply for Brooklyn to lose.

Instead neither happened. Brooklyn beat Vermont by one run in an eight-hour, 12-inning epic, and Aberdeen lost to Lowell, scoring just once in a 6-1 defeat. Season over. See you next year.

After finishing third again in 2007, but this time 13.5 games behind wild card winner Staten Island, Aberdeen began a futile streak that did not end until this season.

From 2008 through 2012, the IronBirds finished dead last in the McNamara Division, and in its two previous seasons, Aberdeen sported the worst regular-season record in the New York-Penn League. The nadir came in 2011, when the IronBirds started off under new manager Leo Gomez by losing 17 of their first 19 games, and finishing with the worst mark in club history, 24-51.

Joe Stetka, C. Milton Wright's head baseball coach and the IronBirds official scorekeeper since the club's first season, who has surely seen more games at Ripken Stadium than just about anyone, said the pennant-clinching victory on Monday was cathartic.

"It was a pinch-me moment, for sure," Stetka said Wednesday. "When they made that final out, I had a tear of joy in my eye, I'll tell you that. After so many years of getting knocked around, to see them finally make it happen, that was really something else."

"The guys on the team, they rallied for Merullo every game, didn't allow themselves to get down after tough losses," Stetka said. "As an Orioles' fan, it's great to see because you know the organization is coming together from the bottom up. This year's team got to play most of the season together, and they just gelled so well. This is a special team they've got this season."

As is the case for most successful teams, winning makes the loyal younger fan base more apt to try that particular sport, as Stetka explained.

"You see it with youth football after the Ravens had their success,"' he said. "A team wins a title or makes it to the playoffs, and kids want to play that sport. So, this is good for Harford County baseball. This is already a great area for the sport. We have schools sending teams to the state finals year in and year out, and Bel Air just won the [3A baseball] title in the spring. Hopefully this just makes it an even better place for baseball."

The IronBirds will play the first playoff game in their history on the Ripken Stadium diamond tonight (Friday) against the Tri-City Valley Cats, winners of the league's Stedler Division. The game begins a best of three semifinal round. Though the 2013 season is already the best in the team's history, there could be a lot more IronBirds magic to come.

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