Concerns that Ripken Baseball or the Aberdeen IronBirds might be flying out of Harford County, based on two startling developments last year, were put to rest Tuesday by the head IronBird, the Iron Man himself, Cal Ripken Jr.
"We're not going anywhere," Ripken said during a meeting earlier this week with Aegis and Record editors in his suite at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, where the former Orioles player and Baseball Hall of Fame member talked about the future of his business interests in his hometown of Aberdeen.
The news in September that Ripken Baseball would no longer host the Cal Ripken youth World Series in Aberdeen was followed closely by reports that Cal and brother Bill Ripken were seeking a strategic partner to buy part of the IronBirds led to speculation about the future of big-time youth baseball and Minor League Baseball.
Cal Ripken acknowledged during Tuesday's meeting that he understands how such thinking took root, but the news stories only meant his business was changing, not that he or his brother were giving up on their Aberdeen youth baseball complex or their 15-year-old minor league Class A short season team.
"I think that's a little bit of concern, because we don't make business stories, news, that public," Ripken said. "We don't go out and say this is what we're planning, this is what our strategy is, but the kids side has always been something I wanted to do when I got into this and when we came together looking for different sites. I'm really proud of this place."
That pride is not only part of a refocusing on Ripken Baseball's core mission, but also re-energizing Ripken Baseball's Aberdeen operations.
"Part of that is waking up to get our resources in line and one part of that way is to take a partner in the IronBirds, for the purpose of expanding our scale on our youth operations," Ripken said. "We've gotten out of the minor league baseball business in Augusta [Ga.] and Port Charlotte [Fla.]. We don't intend on getting out of the minor league baseball business here, we just intend to look for the right partner, where we can reallocate some resources."
There have been parties interested in a possible IronBirds partnership, Ripken confirmed. But it won't be a fire sale, nor is there a rush to get it done.
"We thought at first we're gonna buy 10 different minor league teams, in 10 years, which finding one and impacting a new stadium and those sort of things isn't easy," he said.
"In many ways, it started to take our focus away from our kids focus, so I think opportunity has been fairly abundant to us, but we seem to be chasing a lot of things, instead of narrowing our focus," he continued. "Focusing on this community, this is where I'm from, this is where Billy's from, this is where we're all from, so we're really proud of this place. We want to make everybody feel at ease. We're looking to take a strategic, right partner on, we're not moving."
That said, there are a number of changeshappening at the IronBirds home stadium. Most notably, all the handrails throughout the stadium are being replaced, at a cost of almost $1 million, and a new video board is being installed.
The new video board, which will be 10 times larger than the one that has occupied center field since the stadium opened in 2002, is the biggest wow item among current and planned upgrades to the facility.
The old board was 150 square feet. The new board will be 1,500 square feet.
"Because of this new video board, we're about to announce a free series of community movies, so four times throughout the summer, families can come in, we're going to allow them to bring their own food and beverage in, they can picnic on the outfield grass," IronBirds General Manager Matt Slatus said. "This video board in and of itself is going to be a significant addition, solely for what we're able to do in the community."
"Events have always been a community contribution to us. We want this place to be the community gathering point, it's a celebratory place, it's for the community, so we've always taken that approach to it," Ripken said. "Now we're willing to look and explore other ways to bring more events in here, to make it more profitable for the city, for all of us together. I don't perceive any problems."
Slatus, who took over the GM job extremely late last season, is plugged into the community. He's been a frequent attendee at Aberdeen City Council meetings and other activities since arriving.
"We want this to be Harford County's own, we want it to be IronBirds own. We want to be able to give back. This community is so small, we can't expect them to invest in us, unless we're investing right back in them," he said.
"So, everything we're doing is about bringing families out to the ballpark, it's about helping our business partners grow and most importantly, we're not going anywhere, so it's about giving back and going into Wegmans or Klein's Shop Rite and seeing the people that are our season ticket holders, that are our now five-game buyers," Slatus said. "We're a central part of Aberdeen, we appreciate it, we're excited about it and we're going to be visible. It's an exciting time here."