GreenJackets fan Bessie Neal, 77, who hasn't missed a game in years, said Cal Ripken "is the best thing that's happened to us."

Underscoring his celebrity, Ripken has even been extended an invitation to play the golf course at Augusta National - home of the Masters. The GreenJackets are so named because the tournament is Augusta's best-known commodity and the champion traditionally receives a green jacket.

"Those are hallowed grounds, so it's a big deal," GreenJackets general manager Nick Brown said of the invitation to play the golf course, less than two miles from the stadium. Ripken hasn't accepted the invitation, according to Ripken Baseball.

Though his prominence is clearly a marketing tool in Augusta, Ripken said he has been reluctant to call too much attention to himself.

"When I came down for opening day, I had a decision to make," Ripken said. "I had to decide whether to address the fans before the game."

He ultimately declined, saying, "It's not about me."

While the Ripken name is a useful marketing tool, it goes only so far. "The name will get you in the door, but it won't keep you in the room," Eiseman said. In other words, he said, Ripken himself isn't enough to entice fans to buy tickets.

Ripken references inside the stadium are subtle. A "Ripken Baseball" banner hangs on one of the brick facades, and the brothers' instructional books and videos are sold in the stadium store. That's about it.

But everyone knows who the team's owners are.

Said GreenJackets catcher Nick Conte, 24: "We all grew up watching Ripken play. Playing for someone who's your hero motivates you. You want to impress him."

And then there are the jerseys. "I've seen more Orioles jerseys in the last six months than I had in my entire life," said Brown, the GM.

When he stopped playing the game after the 2001 season, Ripken - considered a shoo-in for election to the Hall of Fame next year - was regarded as prime material for a variety of baseball jobs, from field manager to the front office. For those wondering why he'd step out of his comfort zone and into the business world, Ripken said it's about new challenges.

"When you first come in as a rookie in the big leagues, it all opens up to you. I'm experiencing that newness now as if I'm a rookie. People my age [who are in business] have a 20-year head start on me," Ripken said.

The IronBirds, Ripken Baseball's first minor league purchase, have sold out all of their games from their first opening day in 2002.

The GreenJackets, by contrast, have an older stadium and a smaller - though still potentially robust - market to draw from: the 500,000-population Georgia-South Carolina border region 150 miles east of Atlanta. It's just the sort of challenge Ripken seems to crave.

"One could make the case: 'Aberdeen was really easy for you, it's your hometown,'" Ripken said. "Augusta is not my hometown. It's not a new stadium. But it's a wonderful market."

Like so many other projects in his life, Ripken's minor league pursuits are partly about his late father.

Former Orioles manager Cal Ripken Sr. was a baseball lifer with a raspy, smoker's voice who took Cal and his three siblings with him each spring and summer to his latest baseball job in places such as Asheville, N.C., and Appleton, Wis.

The minor leagues are part of the younger Cal's roots.

"Dad spent 14 years in the minor leagues," Ripken said. "And that was the first 14 years of my life."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com