A decade of high drama, good baseball at the Cal Ripken World Series

The Cal Ripken Major 70 12-year-old World Championship, which returns to Aberdeen this weekend, had its beginnings 14 years ago, half a country away and under a different set of rules than what players and fans will experience in the 2013 renewal of what has become a Harford County institution.

This year is the 11th time the world championship has taken place at the Ripken Baseball Complex in Aberdeen, featuring 16 teams from across the U.S. and around the world.

The players, ages 11 and 12, can be expected to leave everything they have on the field if they want to make it into the tournament's highlight reel. Many of the games over the years have been chock full of excitement and remarkable plays.

The Cal Ripken World Series starts tonight (Friday) when the Harford County host team, the Hickory Hornets, plays the Mid-Atlantic champion, from Piedmont, Del., at 8 p.m. in Cal Sr.'s Yard.

The skills competition, a highlight of the series, will be conducted on Friday, as well, with preliminaries from 2-4 p.m. and the finals from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Cal Sr.'s Yard and Nationals Park. The competition includes a home run derby, "turn two" double play execution, "golden spikes" baserunning and outfield relay throwing.

In all, 41 games are scheduled over the course of the 10-day tournament, culminating with the world championship game on Sunday, Aug. 18.

For most games, no tickets are required for spectators, as no admission is charged. Free tickets, however, are required for the games contested on Championship Weekend, Aug. 17-18. They can be secured at http://www.ripkenbaseball.com/world_series.

In addition to baseball, other entertainment is planned throughout the Ripken Series:

• Players from the series teams will participate in a parade in downtown Aberdeen beginning at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 10.

• A free teen dance party is planned for 9 p.m. to midnight Saturday, Aug. 10 on the grass near the parking lot at the stadium complex.

• Sunday, Aug. 11, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. is billed as Splash Day, during which fans can take advantage of inflatable water slides and other water themed attractions with a $5 pass.

• A carnival midway featuring about 20 rides is open from 5 p.m. until the end of the day's final game Aug. 12- 17 and on Aug. 18 from noon to 6 p.m.

• An International Dance Extravaganza event is planned for 10 p.m. to midnight Aug. 14 after the evening's final game.

• Friday, Aug. 16, is billed as Taste of Maryland night and features a sampling of local dinner fare from 5 to 7 p.m. in the third base white tent at the stadium complex; cost is $15 per person.

• Karla Davis, from NBC's "The Voice" is to perform a concert after the final game Aug. 18; the game starts at 2 p.m. so the concert is expected to begin around 4:30 p.m.

Competitive history

The tournament, played under the auspices of Babe Ruth Baseball international, was known originally as the Cal Ripken Major 60 12-year-old World Series and had its inaugural run in 2000 in Mattoon, Ill. Three years later, the competition came to its current home in Aberdeen.

The 2003 competition in Aberdeen, played entirely in Ripken Stadium because the neighboring you baseball complex hadn't been built yet, saw the Hilo, Hawaii squad take the U.S. title, while Mexico began one of the more impressive streaks the series has witnessed, winning the first of eight straight International Division titles. The Mexican national squad's run did not end until 2011, when the Japanese team took top the International competition's top spot.

The Mexico team took the 2003 World Championship game in short order, beating the Hawaiian squad easily, 13-2, for the first of its four overall titles.

Following Mexico's repeat World Championship game victory over West Raleigh, N.C. in 2004, two squads from a remote American destination took control of the tournament, as Hawaiian teams from Honolulu and Hilo bested Mexico for the title, 1-0 and 5-2, respectively, the next two years.

The 2007 tournament came with some major changes. The Babe Ruth Major 60 format, which features 60-foot base paths and a 46-foot distance from the pitching mound to home plate, was abandoned in favor of the tournament's current Major 70 configuration, in which the base paths are 70 feet and the pitching distance is 50 feet.

The reason for the switch, explained by Ripken Baseball officials prior to the start of the 2007 tournament, was that the 12-year-old competitors, some of whom could pitch the equivalent of a 115-mph fastball from a mound 46 feet away, were throwing too hard and running to fast for the Major 60 format, and that the added distance would make the competition more even and enjoyable for those involved.

During the 2007 competition's opening-night gala, some of the players took part in a home run derby, during which a Mexican team member came through with a power exhibition that has yet to equaled six years later. Carlos Munoz, a left-handed hitting catcher, sent 18 pitches over the outfield wall of Cal Sr.'s Yard, winning the derby handily.

A week after Munoz's home run display, his team defeated Tampa, Fla., 8-0, for its third World Championship crown.

Probably the most thrilling finish of any of the tournaments held in Aberdeen came the following year, when the Jupiter, Fla. team defeated Mexico, 5-4, for the 2008 title.

Trailing, 4-3, in the bottom of the seventh inning after Mexico took a one-run lead in the top half of the inning, Jupiter sent catcher Logan Heiser to the plate with a teammate on base, and he ended the tournament by slamming a 3-1 fastball over the center field wall for a two-run, walk-off homer.

"I'd never hit a walk-off home run before," Heiser said after the game. "It really felt great. I'm kind of in shock."

Heiser, now a high school senior and still a catcher, was part of his school team's best ever season, as the Jupiter Warriors finished their 2013 campaign with a 23-5 record and advanced to the semifinals of the Florida State Championship Tournament for the first time.

A Florida squad came through with another World Championship run in 2009, as Forest Hills, Fla., edged Mexico, 7-6, in the final. Forest Hills is the last American team to take top honors.

Mexico took back the crown in 2010, beating Ocala, Fla., 7-1, in the title game.

Possibly still stinging from a 12-inning loss to Mexico in the 2008 tournament's International final, the Japanese national team finally ascended to the top in 2011, ending Mexico's run of eight division crowns. Japan went on to win its first world title that year, beating American champ, Lexington, Ky., 7-0.

The 2011 tournament, notable not just for being the end of Mexico's International Division dominance, also had one of the best youth pitching performances seen in Aberdeen, or anywhere else. Dominican Republic hurler Leudy Santana started for his team in its International Division semifinal against Mexico, and proceeded to fan 14 hitters in a complete-game no-hitter. Japan then knocked off Santana and the Dominican squad, 10-3, in the 2011 International final.

The Japanese team returns this year as a back-to-back champion, after defeating the U.S. Champion and Maryland representative from Upper Montgomery County, 17-7, in the 2012 title game, the first time a team from the tournament's home state had advanced that far.

Can Japan three-peat in 2013? Will Mexico return to glory? Can a U.S. champ win the title for the first time in four years? There will be plenty of story lines to follow as the 2013 Cal Ripken World Series unfolds over the next 10 days.

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