Indeed, Cal the brand is an important part of the business -- one that feeds the rest.

He signed a three-book contract this year after the success of 2004's Play Baseball the Ripken Way. He gets roughly 500 requests annually to give speeches, says Keppler Speakers, his representative. His fee starts at $50,000. As an endorser, he brings in several million a year for appearances on television, radio, billboards, even credit cards -- and his spokesman says he's more in demand now than as a player.

"Cal Ripken is a business unto himself," said Steve Rosner of 16W Marketing, which handles his endorsements.

Those deals are more than just ads. XM Satellite Radio also gave him a weekly show with Bill Ripken to talk about baseball. He represents credit card giant MBNA at conventions, executive dinners and charity events.

He made a surprise appearance at a large gathering of Comcast Corp. employees, and "the place went absolutely wild," said Jim Gordon, a spokesman for the cable company.

That might give him an advantage if he goes after Comcast's three minor-league baseball teams in Maryland, which were for sale last year before a deal fell through.

As the banner ads on the ball fields in Aberdeen show, most of the companies he represents also pitch in for his ventures.

They sponsor the Cal Ripken World Series, a championship event for the nonprofit Babe Ruth League, the youth baseball group that renamed its largest division for Ripken in 1999.

The companies finance the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which brings baseball to disadvantaged kids. And the businesses also pay to be associated with the IronBirds.

Ripken plans it that way, leveraging his cachet as an endorser into deals that help his divisions, some of which haven't gotten beyond break-even yet.

"We look ... for more of a stable, long-term partnership where we can accomplish things together," he said.

He gets government in the game, too. South Carolina agencies have promised about $1.7 million in infrastructure improvements for the Ripken Experience project. In Aberdeen, he paid for a third of the $18 million stadium; the city, county and state picked up the rest.

There's grumbling in Aberdeen about this. Some residents think stadiums and tax money shouldn't mix, said city finance director Francis Bitzelberger.

City leaders call it a break-even proposition because admissions taxes from the stadium and lease payments on the land for the youth academy are covering their debt payments. They were expecting to pay for part of the stadium before Ripken got involved, when it was just a hope.

"We've been very blessed, I must say," said Aberdeen Mayor Doug Wilson. "He could have built this complex anywhere else, but he really wanted to do it in his hometown."

Don Morrison, who coached Ripken for three years at Aberdeen High School, thinks the larger point is this: In a city of 14,000 there sits a stadium that holds 6,100 -- and there's a waiting list to get in.

"Aberdeen is not a metropolis [by] any stretch of the imagination," he said. "To have a stadium and a complex like what he's building there and to have it filled every night to the point that you can't get a ticket. ... Think of all the hurdles that had to be overcome."

It fits with his memory of a boy with quiet determination and a consuming drive to win. "Nothing that he does surprises me anymore," Morrison said.

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.
On the Web

Listen to reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins talk about this article at baltimoresun.com/2131.