Toddlers to more mature fans sporting more-salt-than-pepper hair waited patiently in the Abingdon library Monday night for a visit with Harford County's own "Iron Man," former Oriole and Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.
Ripken, alongside his co-author Kevin Cowherd, formerly a sports columnist with The Baltimore Sun who covered Ripken's baseball career, joined the crowd of fans dressed in black and orange Orioles gear to talk about "Squeeze Play," the fourth installment of their children's book series, which was released March 4.
The series is loosely mirrored after Ripken's own life growing up, playing in the minor leagues and eventually becoming a star player for the Baltimore Orioles, with whom he spent his entire Major League career.
Although classified as children's books, Ripken said series is for readers from ages 8 to 53, with "each book about a kid who has to overcome a life challenge."
Ripken, a hometown hero growing up in Aberdeen, said he sees a lot of himself in the first book in the series titled "Hothead," about an all-star short stop on the Babe Ruth team whose biggest enemy to succeeding on the field is his temper.
"I had a really bad temper. It was my mom who helped me overcome it; Dad was out doing his thing in professional baseball," Ripken said to the audience. "There's this power that would come over me and I felt like I needed to do something with it."
Ripken said his mother, Vi, pushed him to channel that power in a positive direction by doing other things like running or playing basketball.
Ripken and Cowherd's other two books deal with issues such as bullying and being overweight, which have become hot topics for young people in recent years, both on and off the baseball diamond.
The fourth book, however, turns the microscope from the behavior of the young player to the behavior of the parent. The book explores how kids can cope with an over-zealous, over-involved or bad sport parent.
Parents of athletes can sometimes instill the wrong values in the children, like winning without the fun of playing the game, said Cowherd.
"This gave us a chance to deal with social issues in a way that was comfortable and unobtrusive to kids, so when they start to read it they can relate to this group of kids," Ripken said to the audience. "They can relate to the problems and they can see solutions that become real to them."
The writing duo has been contracted through Disney-Hyperion for six books, and Ripken said he hopes the contract will be extended to nine.
"I love the fact that being a sports guy, you can influence young people," Ripken said. "There's a great magic sports has allowed me to do."
Cowherd said the duo is always open to feedback from readers about issues they want to discuss in subsequent books. In one of the next books, he said, they plan to address children who are overshadowed by a sibling.
"We've had a few parents here talk about how one kid has to follow a strong superstar sibling," Cowherd said.
According to Cowherd, although the books center around baseball and the players in the Babe Ruth League (Ripken has become associated with Babe Ruth Baseball since his playing career ended), the books are not just for boys.
"There's a strong female protagonist in every book," Cowherd said. "Understandably, mostly boys are reading it, but there's a strong female in every book."
Library officials said more than 200 people attended Monday's event, for which single tickets were priced at $35 and included a copy of the book.
A Harford County Public Library spokesperson said there were 230 seats on the floor and still there were people standing. HCPL initially offered 200 tickets, which sold out in under 24 hours, and then had had a waiting list.
Following the discussion, attendees young and old lined up to get their copy of the book autographed by Ripken and Cowherd and to have their photo taken with the baseball legend.
Evan Baum, 13, said while he is not an avid reader, he came because he really likes baseball. Evan plays on a regional softball team for disabled youth based in Baltimore.
Gail Schultze, 58, of Bel Air, who was getting an autographed book for her grandson, said she has been a Ripken fan since the Orioles played at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.
"The children look up to somebody like this," Schultze said. "It's nice it's the person in your own backyard, not just on TV, but someone you can see in Walmart or Target."
Ten percent of the Barnes and Noble sales of the latest book will be donated to the Harford County Public Library's Summer Reading Program, said Mary Hastler, director of the Harford County Public Library, who attended Monday's event.