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Ripken is local hero for Ga. team's fans

More than 600 miles from Camden Yards, baseball fans in this Savannah River city are wearing Orioles jerseys in malls where country music plays and in restaurants where the iced tea is served sugary sweet.

The proliferation of Orioles garb in a distinctly Southern city is testament to the ever-expanding reach of Cal Ripken Jr., who bought a Single-A team here before the season and has been adopted as a local hero.

Ripken and his business partners say the purchase of the Augusta GreenJackets last year and the Aberdeen IronBirds in 2002 is only the beginning. Writing a new - and in some ways unexpected - second act to his baseball life, Ripken said the acquisitions are part of an informal goal of buying 10 minor league clubs in 10 years.

Ripken is being joined in the Augusta venture by his brother Bill and a investment group that includes Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora and former Orioles Eddie Murray, Mike Boddicker and Dennis Martinez. While the organization declined to give the price of the team or break down each partner's stake, it characterized Cal Ripken as the group's leader and referred to him as the team's "owner."

Prices for minor league teams range from $5 million to $20 million.

Ripken has made clear his interest in someday running, and perhaps owning, a major league club - maybe even the Orioles. He said he would still be interested in the big leagues if there were an opportunity to oversee a club's player development, including its scouting and farm systems.

For now, Ripken's attention is on a fledgling minor league baseball empire that he hopes will one day spread to every region of the country.

Cal and Bill Ripken are also looking to build more baseball training complexes for youths like the one the brothers started this year in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Bill Ripken is co-owner of Ripken Baseball, an umbrella group that oversees Ripken business affairs, a charitable foundation and the minor league teams.

"I love the environment of minor league baseball," said Cal Ripken, 46, who made four minor league stops and then played 21 seasons with the Orioles and set the record for consecutive games played. "Minor league baseball is, in many ways, what people think big league baseball was years and years and years ago. It's about the people experience, and it's about family entertainment. So therefore, in minor league baseball many times the mascot is more valuable than the shortstop."

The ever-competitive Ripken said he's attracted by the challenge of having to start cold and learn baseball from the business side.

Instead of focusing on the action between the white lines, he's thinking about what food fans like to eat (he introduced steamed crabs several years ago at Aberdeen's Ripken Stadium). He's weighing in on promotions (Augusta recently had Anger Management Night to rib a rival manager who had a memorable tantrum during a game in June). And he's trying to determine how to keep GreenJackets rooters cool on sweltering Georgia nights (he placed large rotor-blade fans in the stands).

In its first season owning the club, the Ripken brothers' group increased the GreenJackets staff from four to 13, importing a few ticket sales representatives from Aberdeen to help the newly acquired club. The Ripkens added new computers, upgraded the public-address system and built a party deck down the right-field line. The club changed its logo, adding orange because of Cal Ripken's fondness for the Orioles' principal color. The GreenJackets are not an Orioles affiliate, but the change was acceptable because the San Francisco Giants, the team's parent club, also feature orange in their uniforms and logo.

While many minor league teams are money-losers, the GreenJackets - which lost several hundred thousand dollars last year - expect to come close to breaking even this year. The additional sales staff has paid off. Average attendance is up 20 percent to 2,474 at 4,800-capacity Lake Olmstead Stadium - an 11-year-old stadium built on a scenic lake that, much to the current club officials' dismay, isn't visible from the seats. Season tickets have tripled to 1,200, and Ripken is being hailed as the once-moribund club's savior.

Ripken is even credited by some fans for the team's recent clinching of a playoff spot in the South Atlantic League - the GreenJackets begin the league's southern divisional series at home today. But the former shortstop had almost nothing to do with the accomplishment because player development is handled entirely by the Giants organization. The club is managed by former New York Yankee Roberto Kelly.

Ripken acknowledges there is an "irony" in being so close to the game he loves without having a role with players. If he accepted a major league post, Ripken said, he would want control of the baseball side, not the business side.

Asked to reconcile those two competing job interests, Ripken smiled and said, "I wish I had a master plan." He also writes a youth sports advice column for The Sun.

There has been little negative commentary about the Ripkens since the Augusta purchase. Their elimination of "Two for Tuesday," one of two weekly beer discount events at the stadium, drew mild criticism. The ownership group decided that the promotion was not consistent with its family entertainment model.

"There are things we'll walk away from," said Jeff Eiseman, who oversees the GreenJackets' and IronBirds' business operations. "We had a radio station ask us to do the world's largest whoopee cushion night. That's not really the image we want for our ballclub."

Ed Presnell, former president of the local Chamber of Commerce, said the brothers have been welcomed by most. "The Ripkens came down here and met all the right people: the government leaders, the business leaders, the nonprofit community. We feel like we're part of the Ripken family," Presnell said.

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

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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