Although she has never played an inning in the Orioles' farm system, Vi Ripken knows a thing or two about the minor leagues as the wife of a player-manager and the mother of two boys who came up through the ranks.

"Did I ever think minor league baseball would look like this? No, never," says Ripken, nursing a soft drink as she stands on the concourse behind home plate at the stadium named for her husband. "When Rip and I went to Salisbury for my first modern minor league game, I was amazed. When he told me it was Class A, I said, 'Well, I don't remember anything like this.' "

But Ripken Stadium is exactly the kind of ballpark that people have come to expect, whether it's Camden Yards or its look-alike kid brother here in Aberdeen. Last season, minor league baseball drew a record 41.7 million fans, the third consecutive year of increased attendance, and is on pace to equal that number this season.

The $18 million home of the Aberdeen IronBirds is People's Exhibit A.

As quickly as it came through the slotted window at the front of Ripken Stadium as a return, the last ticket - Section 103 - was snapped up. Before the lucky fan reached his reserved seat, the strains of the national anthem rose to mingle with the savory smells of grilling sausages and Old Bay-infused steamed crabs to begin another sold-out night of IronBirds baseball.

High-quality play it is not, but that hardly matters to the people who come out game after game to watch the short-season, Single-A team that is part of the identity of Maryland's most famous baseball family.

Ripken, who lives 10 minutes away and spends most evenings at the ballpark off I-95, calls it "a community reunion every night," with Little Leaguers, church groups and neighborhood associations.

"It's like you go to Ripken Stadium and a ballgame breaks out," she says. "Sometimes I go home and I don't even know what the score is."

Minor league baseball is entertainment, yes, but it's also what feeds "The Show," as the major leagues are called. Young men in their late teens and early 20s are hoping to catch someone's eye with their talent and hustle.

Former Orioles pitcher Dave Johnson, who played in the minors for eight years and the majors for five years, says at rookie and short-season Single-A, "What you find is that most of the kids ... for the first time meet their match. They've always been the big man on campus because of their physical attributes and they haven't had to face people with similar physical skills. For the first time it matters how they do things and how consistently they do things more than just, 'I run fast,' or 'I throw hard,' or 'I have a lot of power.' That weeds a lot of guys out."

As Orioles assistant general manager and director of minor league operations, David Stock- still spends his summers on the road pruning the farm system.

"At the beginning, they're very, very raw," he says. "As hitters we want them seeing the pitches, judging the rotation, judging speed. When they can do that, they're able to move up a level and then we'd like to see them hit the ball all over the field and hit the ball with authority, the breaking ball as well as the fastball. That should get them up to the Double-A area. After that, it's more adjustment pitch to pitch as the pitcher adjusts to them."

Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer says at lower levels, the emphasis is on athleticism, good control and movement on the pitches: "Does he have a windup he can repeat?"

"As they go up, you want to see how they read bats," he says. "If the batters are on their fastball, do they recognize that and go to something else? How do you do when things don't go well? That usually happens at some point in the minors. Do you maintain your composure when it does?"

Making sure players have the fundamentals down at Double-A is important, Stockstill says, because many players skip over the highest level of the minors on their way to the majors. These days, a city that pays for construction of a 12,000-seat Triple-A stadium wants a winning team in return. So the age and experience of players have increased as parent clubs try to maintain good working relationships.

When asked which Orioles enjoyed textbook development, Stockstill doesn't hesitate. " and Jerry Hairston Jr. They both came in. They were both game, winning-type players, and they both moved level to level and improved each year and came through the system very, very well. It's just unfortunate that they both played second base."

A more recent textbook Oriole is . "Once he got to Double-A, he got better a whole lot quicker than you would expect. In a good way, he accelerated the pace," Stockstill says.

The fans are tolerant of these young works in progress, hoping that someday they can boast they saw the next Cal Ripken.

"One night they look like worldbeaters, the next night they look like stickball players," says Tim Kick, who likes the minor league game so much he works as a Ripken Stadium usher. "But I've lost my appetite for major league sports years ago. Now, this is it."
Do your own tour:

The stars - and schedules - align later this month for another six-pack tour of Orioles minor league teams, plus an Orioles game.

July 28 // Orioles vs. Yankees, 7:05 p.m. Go to orioles.com.

July 29 // Frederick Keys vs. Winston-Salem Warthogs, 6 p.m. Go to frederickkeys.com.

July 30 // Bluefield Orioles vs. Johnson City Cardinals, 7 p.m. Go to www.bluefieldorioles.com.

July 31 // Bowie Baysox vs. Portland Sea Dogs, 7:05 p.m. Go to baysox.com.

Aug. 1 // Delmarva Shorebirds vs. Kannapolis Intimidators, 7:05 p.m. Go to theshorebirds.com.

Aug. 2 // Norfolk Tides vs. Louisville Bats, 7:15 p.m. Go to norfolktides.com.

Aug. 3 // Aberdeen IronBirds vs. Vermont Lake Monsters, 7:05 p.m. Go to ironbirdsbaseball.com.
Aberdeen

• Name: IronBirds

• Class: Single-A, short season

• Stadium: Ripken Stadium (2002)

• Reserved seat: $8

• Jumbo hot dog: $3.50

• Mascot: Ferrous

• Web site: ironbirdsbaseball.com

candy.thomson@baltsun.com monica.lopossay@baltsun.com