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IronBirds enter new season with new skipper, new staff

With less than a week left before the start of the 2013 New York-Penn League season, the 11-year-old baseball franchise in Aberdeen, which has seen a bevy of changes in the preceding months, is tightening all the screws, making sure all the moving parts are accounted for and gearing up for a long summer at Ripken Stadium.

Tickets are still available to Monday's 7:30 p.m. game against the Hudson Valley Renegades. Single game tickets are also available for regular season games.

As an organization, the Aberdeen IronBirds are not unaccustomed to change, having cycled through six managers from 2002, their inaugural season, to 2012. This year the franchise is welcoming not just its seventh different skipper, but a new front office, a new radio man and a new logo.

Taking charge in the IronBirds' clubhouse as the manager for the 2013 season will be Matt Merullo, a former major-league catcher who played parts of six seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins before retiring from the field in 1996. Merullo, who is scheduled to talk with reporters on Thursday as part of the IronBirds media day activities, is the fourth manager Aberdeen has had in the last four seasons. He comes after one-year stints by Gary Allenson, former Baltimore Oriole Leo Gomez and Gary Kendall..

"Matt is really excited to be in Aberdeen," Amy Venuto, who took over as Aberdeen's executive director of professional baseball in February, said. "When he first came on, he saw that we'd had some tough seasons leading up to this one, and said, 'we're going to change that.'"

Venuto, who talked with The Aegis from her cell phone at Ripken Stadium near the end of a 16-hour work day, and new General Manager Brad Cox represent the biggest changes made in the IronBirds' front office. Both were with the IronBirds when the organization started operations in 2002.

"Brad and I were the first full-time employees on the premises [at Ripken stadium], I believe," Venuto said. "And, this season is the first time we've been able to work here together since then. [We] have a lot of pride in this team and its fans, and reengaging with the fan base, rebuilding that connection, that's the best part of this job. Right now it's a little stressful because we're trying to get everything in order for opening night, but we're making it happen."

Venuto, who started as the IronBirds director of sales and worked as an executive with the Charlotte Stone Crabs of the Florida State League before coming back to Aberdeen, said the biggest challenge ahead of the new front-office team at Ripken Stadium is reaching the fans, every home game, from June through September.

"The scary part of all this is that I'm never really satisfied," she said. "The way I see it, we're throwing a party here at the stadium 38 times this summer, and we've got 6,000 people coming to each one of those. We've got to try and make each one of those 6,000 fans happy regardless of where they come from, what their background is, whether they're old or young. The challenge is keeping that level for every home game. Right now we're all pumped up for opening night, but once the lights go out, we've got to start thinking about the next game. That's tough, but it's exciting, too."

In addition to Venuto and Cox taking positions near the top of the executive totem pole, Aberdeen saw changes made in the production and entertainment and customer service departments as well.

Also changed during the off-season was the IronBirds' team logo, which from 2002 through last season featured a capital letter A with a smiling jet-plane sitting across it. The new logo, which Ripken Baseball Executive Vice President Bill Ripken said looks "mad [and] more aggressive," shows a fierce looking hawk, talons extended and fire shooting out of its wingtips, hovering over a metallic, "IronBirds," spelled out in all capital letters.

"When they first came up with the new logo, people were saying, 'this is a new era,'" Venuto said. "When you say that, you have to back it up with action, and that's exactly what we want to do this season. The new logo, the changes that have been made, it's reinventing us without changing what made us a great franchise in the first place."

Though not a stranger to Ripken Stadium's home-team broadcast booth, having served as a radio intern during the IronBirds' 2011 season, Paul Taylor was recently tapped as Aberdeen's new radio broadcaster and media relations manager. Taylor, a Forest Hill resident whose parents have been IronBirds' season-ticket holders since 2003, said he is well prepared for the 2013 campaign.

"I have three interns working with me, so that helps a good deal," Taylor said. "There's a lot of new faces up here in the booth, and there's a lot of moving parts to this operation, but we've all done this before, and we're looking forward to the season, especially [opening night on] Monday."

Taylor, who took up sports broadcasting while attending Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minn., explained why he enjoys being immersed in minor league baseball.

"I've called a lot of different sports, and there's nothing quite like baseball," he said. "No other sport in this country has a minor league system like baseball, and it's such a grueling process trying to move up the ladder. Every guy in the minor leagues has a different story, but they have the same goal. You might get a late-round pick from a junior college in Texas, or a the number-one draft pick, and they're both trying to get to the exact same place. For me, it's fascinating to see all those different kinds of players come together in the minors."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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