Mayor Charles R. Boutin is trying to bring minor-league baseball to Aberdeen.

What could be a better place for a minor-league team and stadium, Boutin asks, than the city that's the hometown of Oriole legend Cal Ripken Jr.?

Boutin can't name one.

So he's hard at work trying to secure funding for a 6,000-seat, $12 million stadium to be erected in his city, better known as home to the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Already, Boutin is negotiating with Peter Kirk -- head of the Maryland Baseball Limited Partnership, which owns the Delmarva Shorebirds, as well as clubs in Bowie and Frederick -- to bring a single-A team to Aberdeen.

An anonymous donor has offered $1 million in exchange for naming rights to the stadium, which could be used for high school and college games and entertainment events in the off-season. And Boutin hopes some combination of state, county and local funding -- with $2 million from Kirk's organization -- will provide the rest.

"The marketing study shows this may be the best location in the state," said Boutin, who cited Aberdeen's proximity to Interstate 95 and its residents' traditional love of baseball.

But this game still has a few innings to go.

Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann has been reluctant to commit county funds -- $1 million, if Boutin has his way -- without assurances about the kind of return the county will receive for its money.

"Mrs. Rehrmann's position is that since this is a for-profit entity, she believes that any investment by the county should have a return," county spokesman George F. Harrison said.

"She's looking for about $90,000 a year to be provided, and right now it is being examined whether this is feasible."

And, despite the mayor's enthusiasm, a team has yet to be secured.

Kirk, the minor-league team owner, believes that a ballclub could be successful in Aberdeen, with its abundance of young people and enthusiasm for sports. But he also thinks such a venture depends on the commitment to build a stadium.

"You need to show the baseball league the ability to build the stadium before you are awarded the team," Kirk said. "We are working on getting the approvals, and as that gets clearer, we would be working with the Orioles and the baseball side of things to bring a team there."

Experts say minor-league baseball can be a major business; dozens of stadiums have sprouted up all over the country in recent years. And Jim Van Horn, a sports consultant based in Allentown, Pa., said the association with Ripken family is very beneficial to the project.

"It certainly isn't going to hurt," said Van Horn, who runs Van Horn Communications Inc. a sports consulting firm. "From a marketing point of view, they will get a lot of mileage out of that."

But a minor league park is not necessarily a gold mine.

Arthur Johnson, professor of political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said his research has shown that the economic impact of a minor league stadium on an area is "less than a large, urban supermarket" -- and usually less than residents expect.

"There are a handful of permanent employees, much of the work is seasonal and there usually are nominal salaries for the players," said Johnson, author of "Minor League Baseball and Local Economic Development" (University of Illinois Press 1993). "Local politicians need to better understand the business they are getting into. Sports is not all fun and games."

For fans, however, the most important returns may be the opportunity to have baseball in their own back yard.

Mike Lambert, for example, works in Salisbury and is a season-ticket holder for the Shorebirds.

"I get off at around 4: 30 p.m. and my wife and I eat dinner and head over to the ballgame," said Lambert, who also collects baseball memorabilia. "We see a great game, and we're home by 10 p.m. It's zero hassle."

If he had to travel to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Lambert said, it would take a lot more time and money. He thinks minor-league play brings baseball to a wider audience -- a view shared by at least one professional player.

"Fortunately and unfortunately, we have a tendency to sell out games at Camden Yards," Cal Ripken Jr. said recently after a news conference to promote an adult literacy program. "Minor league baseball gives the flavor of major league playing and makes it accessible to more people."

Ripken said he grew up with the support of the sports programs in Aberdeen and is considering building a Little League field in conjunction with the stadium.

Is he the anonymous donor who has offered $100,000 a year over 10 years for the right to name the complex?

"I can't discuss that right now," Ripkin said, laughing.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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