Though some afternoon rain made it look as though things might be postponed before they even began, the skies cleared and the sun came out, allowing the Cal Ripken World Series to kick off for its 11th year in Aberdeen on Friday.
The evening started with team introductions and a skills competition featuring the home run derby, won this year, for the first time, by a Harford County player - Trent Gast-Woodard.
The opening night also included the first game of the series: the local Hickory Hornets against the mid-Atlantic winner. The Hornets lost, 1-0.
This year's tournament, which concludes next Sunday with a World Championship matchup between the last remaining international and U.S. teams, offers much more than baseball. Cal Ripken Jr., the former Oriole and Hall of Fame member whose name graces the event, talked Friday about what's happening in Aberdeen over the coming days.
"There are a couple elements that we changed leading up to this year's event," Ripken said. "I think the main one is that we're running a full carnival the entire week. When my dad [Cal Ripken Sr.] was coaching and we were traveling with him to different towns, the community meeting point in a lot of those places was the summer carnival. I wanted to bring that kind of atmosphere to the tournament."
Ripken also commented on the level of play seen during the series.
"I look at these kids, and they're the elite 12-year-olds, not just regionally, but in the world," he said. "You watch the Japanese team take infield practice, and they're better drilled than some big league teams that you see. I think my dad would have loved to watch Japan's pre-game routine, because he always said, 'it isn't practice that makes perfect, it's perfect practice that makes perfect,' and they certainly think that, too. And the games themselves are always entertaining. We're getting the best young players in the world, and it shows."
Supporting the Japanese squad, which comes back to Aberdeen as back-to-back World Championship game winner, will be that country's Iron Man, Sachio Kinugasa, who played in a record 2,215 consecutive games with the Hiroshima Carp of Japan's Nippon Professional League. Ripken, who played in a record 2,632 consecutive major league baseball games, passed Kinugasa's mark during the 1996 season.
"When I broke his record in Kansas City, [Kinugasa] was there to watch the game, and we've been friends since then," Ripken said. "He's going to be here the whole week. We're going to get him some steamed crabs, which he's never had, and he wants to see a major league game here. The Orioles are out of town most of the week, so we're going to have to go to a Nationals game."
Attracting 16 teams from as close as Harford County and as far away as Australia, the 12-and-under, Major 70 format tournament officially began at 8 p.m. Friday with the Hickory-Mid-Atlantic winner from Piedmont, Del.
Playing at Cal Sr.'s Yard, the main attraction at the Ripken youth baseball complex, the Piedmont team eked out a 1-0 win over the Harford County boys.
The tournament's first game was a pitcher's duel, with Hickory starter Cameron Kalandros going the distance and allowing just three hits. Kalandros had to settle for the loss, however, as Piedmont posted the contest's lone run in the top of the fourth inning.
Harford County had one hit in the loss, a third-inning, leadoff single by Jake Spurlock.
Prior to the inaugural game, the players making up the 16 squads paraded onto the field and were introduced one-by-one to the crowd. A skills competition followed the player introductions, the highlight of which was the home run derby.
Gast-Woodard from the Hickory team won the home run derby, while Cole Ziegler of the Midwest Plains team from Mineral Area, Miss., took the Golden Cleat award at the competition's baserunning event, circling from home to first in 11.99 seconds.