When former Baltimore Oriole Bill Ripken was 8 years old, he was a bat boy for a minor-league baseball team in Asheville, N.C., managed by his father, Cal Ripken Sr.
One of his jobs was to take the mud from the ground under the dugout water fountain and rub it evenly over the surface of new and shiny white baseballs before giving them to the umpire, so the balls were ready for play.
It's a baseball tradition that continues to this day, according to Ripken, who told the story to children gathered in front of him at the Abingdon Library Saturday.
He told the children that Major League Baseball purchases mud gathered from the banks of the Mississippi River and the Delaware River to put on its baseballs.
"You have to buy mud for Major League Baseball," Ripken said. "Who would have guessed it?"
Ripken visited the library branch to read books to children and to help the Aberdeen IronBirds promote their new ticket plan, from which a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Harford County Public Library for book purchases.
"A minor league baseball team is really only as good as what they give back," Matt Slatus, general manager of the IronBirds, said.
Bill Ripken helped his older brother, Cal Ripken Jr., the former star Orioles shortstop and Baseball Hall of Famer known as the Iron Man, found Ripken Baseball, the parent company of the IronBirds.
Bill Ripken is the co-owner and executive vice president of Ripken Baseball.
IronBirds mascots Ferrous and Ripcord were on hand to greet visitors to the library branch, along with the HCPL dog mascot, Tales.
Slatus noted the team has a "long-standing relationship" with the library system, such as being a partner in the summer reading program. Children who complete summer reading requirements can get free tickets to games.
The IronBirds are expanding on that partnership this year with a new ticket plan. People can purchase a five-game ticket package for $50, and the IronBirds will donate 10 percent of the proceeds from each package purchased to the library system.
"Hopefully, at the end of baseball season, we've been able to turn around and help them raise thousands of dollars for new books for children," Slatus said.
Ripken read two baseball-themed books in the library's collection to the children Saturday — about 100 people, including parents and children, attended, according to Kristi Halford, director of the HCPL Foundation.
The books were "Homer," by Diane DeGroat and Shelley Rotner, about two baseball teams made up of dogs who play each other, and "Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud That Changed Baseball," by David A. Kelly.
Blackburne, who was a third base coach for the former Philadelphia Athletics in the late 1930s, heard the frustrations of an American League umpire who told him mud taken from the dirt on the baseball field and rubbed on balls left the covers too soft.
"Something was needed to take off the shine but not soften the cover," according to http://baseballrubbingmud.com.
Blackburne returned home to New Jersey and found mud with the ideal consistency along the banks of the Delaware River.
"Baseball mud, his special secret mud, changed the game of baseball," Ripken said, reading the book.
He took questions from children in the audience after he finished reading
One child asked him if he ever hit any home runs during his 12-year Major League Baseball career.
"I hit a few home runs," Ripken said. "The good thing about hitting not that many home runs is, I remember every one of them."
Ripken spent 12 seasons in the majors, seven of them with the Orioles, from 1987 to 1998. He is currently an analyst with the MLB Network, and he won a Sports Emmy for outstanding sports personality-studio analyst in 2016.
Another child asked Ripken if he misses playing baseball.
Ripken said he does not miss it.
"I played for an awful long time, got to a point in my career where I was battling certain injures," he said. "I found other avenues to get my baseball fix and be around baseball, but I don't necessarily, actually miss playing the game."
He said he misses spending time with his teammates, but gets the same effect spending time with his colleagues at MLB Network, many who are former baseball players.
"It was a great game and I enjoyed playing it — I wouldn't trade it for anything — I really don't miss it," Ripken said.
Ripken then signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans.
Johnny Hudson, 39, of Edgewood, brought his 5-year-old son, J.D., to meet Ripken.
"It was awesome to be able bring my son to meet someone I grew up watching at his age," Hudson said.
He said Saturday was the first time he has met Bill Ripken in person, but he is friends with Ripken's mother, Vi, who still lives in Aberdeen, and Bill's sister, Ellie, and her husband.
Hudson said the Ripkens are "very cordial, very fun to be around."
Joe Pfistner, 36, of Abingdon, waited in line with his daughters, Cadence, 7, and Britton, 4, to meet Ripken.
"It's cool, it's an opportunity for these guys to meet someone local and who has been famous," he said of his daughters.
He said they enjoy the library in general, and its offerings such as 3-D printing.
"This is just an added bonus, to get a chance to meet someone like Billy Ripken," Pfistner said.
Josh Davenport visited with his 10-year-old son, Mason, his fiance, Tia Cook, and her 4-year-old son, Leo.
"It's a cool little interaction for the kids," he said.
Izzy Hiebler, 9, of Abingdon, waited in line, excited to hear advice from Ripken about his days as an infielder that she could apply during her recreation league softball games.
"He's a really good baseball player, and I like playing softball, so I like learning from him," said Izzy, who plays third base.
Izzy waited with her mother, Shannon, 39, who remembers traveling to the Orioles' former home in Baltimore, Memorial Stadium, to see games with her parents.
"It's good," Hiebler said of the opportunity to meet Ripken. "It's kind of nostalgic."