Olympic gold medalist Helen Maroulis threw first pitch at IronBirds game Thursday night. (Randy McRoberts / BSMG)
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.
Shopping the minor league team, which Ripken and his brother, Billy Ripken, also a former Orioles player, acquired in 2002, is in the discussion stage, according to John Maroon, spokesman for Ripken Baseball. Ripken Baseball wants to maintain a minority interest in the team.
"There's no for sale sign, it's not a public sale. They are looking for a strategic partner to bring into the team," Maroon said. "The bottom line is they [the Ripkens] have to concentrate on their core business, which is the youth baseball business."
Maroon said the sale of the IronBirds differs from the earlier sale of two Ripken-owned minor league teams, the GreenJackets in Georgia and Charlotte Stone Crabs in Florida, because the team plays in the Ripkens' home town "and they have such a presence in the community."
"This is different from the other minor league team sales for sure," Maroon said.
Selling a share of the IronBirds would not affect ownership of The Ripken Experience — Powered by Under Armour youth baseball complex, one of three such complexes owned by Ripken Baseball. The Ripkens will continue to own and operate the Aberdeen complex as well as those in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Maroon said.
Discussing the atmosphere at Ironsbird games with a fan. (Bryna Zumer / BSMG)
The Ripken Experience Aberdeen is located next door to Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, where the minor league IronBirds play their home games.
The IronBirds are the sole tenants of the stadium, whose lease is expiring this year. Preliminary talks have begun on a lease renewal, according to Aberdeen's city manager. In addition to the minor league team using the Stadium, Ripken Baseball controls management of the stadium which is also used to host other athletic events, community activities and parties.
The team plays in the Class A Short Season New-York Penn League and has a player development agreement with the Orioles, which was recently extended through the 2018 season.
Earlier this week, Ripken Baseball announced it would no long host the annual Cal Ripken Babe Ruth Baseball Major-70 World Series for 11- and 12-year-olds at the Ripken Experience Powered by Under Armour in Aberdeen.
While not directly related to the IronBirds situation, Maroon acknowledged the world series decision is also linked to Cal and Billy Ripken wanting to concentrate on the youth baseball programs his company runs. The Aberdeen complex hosts baseball camps, tournaments and other nonprofit events, Maroon said.
"They definitely lost a lot of money hosting that event," he said of the world series, "and it played a role in the decision, but was not the only factor."
Maroon said "a lot of resources" went to hosting the world series, "which took away focus from Ripken Baseball."
"Aberdeen remains a big part of our plans," he said, emphasizing again that the decision to drop the international youth tournament is so Ripken Baseball can concentrate on its other youth activities in Aberdeen.
None of the moves have anything to do with Cal Ripken's pending divorce, Maroon said.
Getting the news that the Cal Ripken World Series is ending after 13 years in the city has been a frustrating experience for former Aberdeen Mayor Michael Bennett, who was a strong supporter of a youth baseball tournament that brought his city international prestige.
"There's just a lot of notoriety for the city, for teams from all over the world to be here, and they know Aberdeen, Md., is the Cal Ripken World Series," Bennett said during an interview in his backyard Friday afternoon.
The CRWS is one of multiple youth baseball tournaments held during spring, summer and fall at the Ripken Experience Aberdeen Powered by Under Armour complex. Those playing fields are designed as replicas of major league stadiums.
The departure of the CRWS is not expected to have a major economic impact, based on interviews with city and county business leaders, but the series has put Aberdeen on the map on the international level, and it has become a community gathering each summer, the former mayor noted.
Local families also hosted players representing foreign countries, such as South Korea, Japan and the Dominican Republic, and the families developed a relationship with their particular teams, hosting players from the same team each year.
"The host families became cheerleaders for that team, and it was a great, great atmosphere for the city; I hate to see it go," Bennett said.
He said his nephew, who is now an adult, played on the Harford County team during the early years of the series.
Local hotel operators expect to see some impact from the loss of the series, but noted more and more players and their own families have been staying with host families in Harford and Cecil counties during the series.
Danielle Ervin, operations manager for the Comfort Inn hotel near the Route 22/I-95 interchange, said teams would stay there during the early years of the tournament, but the hotel has seen fewer guests connected to the CRWS in recent years.
"Our business really won't be that affected," she said.
Ervin has worked at the hotel for 19 years, since it was a Sheraton. It was converted from a Clarion to a Comfort Inn in early 2016. She said March to October is the busy season because of regular Ripken Baseball tournaments.
Workers were putting the finishing touches on an adjoining IHOP restaurant Friday. The hotel will lease the space to IHOP, Ervin said.
Ervin said the operators of the restaurant, which will be open 24 hours a day, expect to be ready by mid-October.
Randy McRoberts talks about the 2016 Cal Ripken World Series. (Randy McRoberts / BSMG)
"That's going to be a huge draw for us," she said, noting it would be an opportunity for local clientele to see the hotel's banquet and meeting facilities.
"That will help locals realize that we're back here," Ervin said.
Tammy Lowry-Gault, general manger of the Holiday Inn Express, which is across Route 22 from the Comfort Inn, expressed concerns about the impact to not only hotels in Aberdeen but restaurants and shops, too.
Lowry-Gault is also the operations director for the Aberdeen-based Blacksmith Corporation, which owns the neighboring Olive Tree restaurant and the Olive Tree Plaza shopping centers.
Hickory advances to U.S. Semifinals at Cal Ripken World Series with a 2-0 win over Lexington. (Randy McRoberts / BSMG)
Her company is also overseeing the development of a 48,000 square-foot retail complex, and a Hyatt Place hotel, near Ripken Stadium, where there has been increased residential and commercial development.
"It definitely helps all of Aberdeen, all of the restaurants and other [businesses] in the area, so I'm sure it will have an impact," Lowry-Gault said of the end of the series.
She said many people in town for other tournaments use the hotel about every weekend between March and October.
"It's definitely a big part of our business, so we're definitely sad to see the World Series go," Lowry-Gault said.
Aberdeen's Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium needs its railings replaced and repairs made to their supporting concrete, an estimated $1 million project that is only the first of a slew of improvements being considered for the 15-year-old, city-owned ballpark.
Greg Pizzuto, executive director of the nonprofit Visit Harford destination marketing organization, said the end of the CRWS is "not that great of a loss for Harford County," in terms of economic activity, but "it was always a great advertising spotlight" for Harford.
Pizzuto expects that the level of economic activity generated by the series could be "surpassed" if Ripken Baseball hosts replacement tournaments during that two-week period.