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Aberdeen mayor says outcome that 'works best for everybody' should be goal if IronBirds are sold

Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. stands with the Aberdeen IronBirds mascot and players prior to a game at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium in 2015.
Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. stands with the Aberdeen IronBirds mascot and players prior to a game at Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium in 2015. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF)

While it's too early to say what the future holds for the Aberdeen IronBirds, in light of last week's news that Cal Ripken Jr. and Billy Ripken, are considering selling a majority interest in the minor league baseball team, Aberdeen's mayor says he is seeking an outcome that "works best for everybody."

"We look forward to working with the current owners to find a solution that works best for everybody," Mayor Patrick McGrady said Monday.

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A prominent city businessman, however, says the city government and city's business community need to do everything within reason to be sure the team, a Class A Short Season minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, remains in Aberdeen.

Steve Johnson, chair of the city's Economic Development Commission, said city leaders also should plan for the "worst-case scenario," if the IronBirds were to leave the city.

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"If the IronBirds were to move the impact on the city would be astronomical," Johnson said Monday.

He said the summer months are a key time for hotel, restaurant and shop operators who depend on baseball.

"It's our businesses that create the tax dollars that pay the bills of the city," Johnson, the owner of an Aberdeen pharmacy, said.

He stressed city leaders should maintain "an open dialogue" with Ripken Baseball, as well as the new majority owners, to plan for the next steps and "secure the future of the city, to make sure we're going to be OK."

McGrady characterized the Ripkens' interest in selling the minor league baseball club as "a business decision," and he noted it is very early to consider whether or not new owners would move the team.

"I hope that they're very successful in this endeavor and future endeavors," the mayor said.

John Maroon, a spokesperson for the Ripken family and their baseball enterprises, confirmed Friday that Cal and Bill Ripken are considering selling their majority interest in the team, which they purchased in 2002.

Such a sale, Maroon explained, would enable the brothers to concentrate on their core business, youth baseball camps and tournaments, which also has a large presence in Aberdeen with The Ripken Experience Aberdeen – Powered by Under Armour.

Maroon stressed the former Major League Baseball playing brothers would not be turning their back on their hometown, or on Harford County, where their mother and other family members continue to live, as does Bill Ripken

The Cal Ripken Major/70 World Series, a Babe Ruth League international tournament for players ages 11 and 12, is leaving Aberdeen after 13 years.

They want to retain a minority interest and bring in "a strategic partner" to operate the team while they focus on their youth baseball business, he said. The team is not being shopped actively, he added, but would be available through a private sale.

Councilman Tim Lindecamp urged his colleagues during Monday evening's Aberdeen City Council meeting to work with Ripken Baseball officials to ensure the team remains in the city, noting the city appears to be in "right field" and the team owners in "left field."

"I think we really need to understand what they're trying to do and what we're trying to do, so we can make this work together so it can benefit the city," Lindecamp said.

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"I really believe that stadium can help the city earn some money, if we work together."

McGrady noted he met with Matt Slatus, the team's new general manger, Monday.

"[Slatus] wants the Ripken Baseball entity to be successful with the city, so to the best of our ability we're going to do that," the mayor said.

McGrady said they discussed how the Ripkens' divestment in the team could affect the stadium and the "city at large."

"The answer that I got from Mr. Slatus was that the Ripken presence is still going to be very visible at the stadium," McGrady said.

The mayor also reported that team officials appreciate the council's recent approval of funds to replace stadium railings, and there have been discussions about replacing the giant electronic screen, with an estimated cost of $400,000 to $600,000.

News about a possible sale of an interest in the IronBirds broke the day after Ripken Baseball, in which Cal Ripken is majority owner and his brother is minority owner, confirmed it has decided to stop hosting Babe Ruth League's annual Cal Ripken World Series international tournament for 11 and 12 year olds at The Ripken Experience in Aberdeen.

Maroon said the world series decision, though independent from what may or may not happen in the future with the IronBirds, was nevertheless driven by the Ripkens desire to focus on their youth baseball complexes in Aberdeen, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Cal Ripken Jr. is considering selling his majority interest in the Aberdeen IronBirds, but the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer remains committed to his Harford County hometown and will continue to operate his stadium complex and to focus on his core mission of youth baseball, a spokesman said Friday.

The possibility of new majority ownership for the IronBirds comes at a time when the Aberdeen city government and Ripken Baseball have begun to negotiate a lease extension on the city-owned Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, whose sole tenant is the Ripken organization.

The stadium was completed in 2002 for about $18 million, with funding coming from the city, the state, Harford County and the Ripken family; however, the largest share of the cost was borne by Aberdeen.

The city spent $15.4 million on land acquisition and construction, according to city Finance Director Opiribo Jack. According to city financial reports, some of the land next to the stadium that became the home of The Ripken Experience complex, is under a lease/sale agreement with Ripken Baseball.

Aberdeen still owes $2.855 million on the funds borrowed for the stadium, Jack said. The annual debt service is about $596,000 a year, and the final payment is scheduled for June of 2022, according to Jack.

McGrady said the stadium is "a great asset" for the city, as well as Harford County and northeastern Maryland.

"We think that it's going to continue to be a bright spot, regardless of what happens with the minor league baseball team that's currently there, or the ownership thereof," he said.

The team executed an initial 20-year lease for the stadium in 2002, but it has been amended since then. The most recent version, a three-year concession agreement, is up for renewal, according to the mayor.

The agreement, which was in effect from July of 2013 to June 30, 2016, is between the city and Tufton Professional Baseball LLC, the IronBirds' business entity.

Tufton is sole tenant of the stadium, and it manages the facility throughout the year. The city maintains the ballpark. Revenue to the city from the lease has averaged around $60,000 annually, City Manager Randy Robertson said last month.

"We remain committed to protecting and preserving the stadium for the lessees and the public at large," McGrady said.

The City Council approved two contracts last week, for a total of nearly $1 million, to replace composite plastic hand railings, as well as the concrete around the base of the railings – city funds, along with a $450,000 grant from the state, will cover those costs.

The railings are among more than $3.1 million worth of repairs needed for the stadium, according to city officials, which was determined by an engineering study undertaken jointly by the city and the Ripken organization.

Steve Johnson said the stadium is a major consideration to keeping the IronBirds in town.

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"Should the IronBirds move, the city would be left with a white elephant that they would still have to pay for," he said.

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"It's really the right thing to do, to try to keep the IronBirds here in Aberdeen," Johnson said.

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