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Only the players are minor-league

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The hottest tickets in Aberdeen this spring are those for Tuesday's grand opening of Ripken Stadium, the minor-league ballpark named for Maryland's first family of baseball. The 5,557-seat stadium off Interstate 95 is generating the same kind of excitement in Harford County that Oriole Park did in Baltimore 10 years ago, and the similarities don't end there.

Just as Oriole Park at Camden Yards provided the model for a new kind of ballpark for big cities, Ripken Stadium represents a winning approach for a more suburban setting.

Starting Tuesday, patrons will discover an intimate, family-friendly ballpark where ticket prices are affordable, parking is free, lines are short, and every seat has a good view. It's a place where parents will be able to buy a hot dog and catch up with neighbors without losing sight of the game or the kids.

They'll also find features one might expect to see only in larger stadiums, from wide seats with built-in cup holders to an air-conditioned club level and skyboxes. More than a few elements are reminiscent of Camden Yards, including the color scheme, arched entrance, exposed ironwork and ornate video board.

The result is a minor-league ballpark with a major-league feel - in the best sense. Its size and scale give it a small town flavor, but the craftsmanship and creature comforts are worthy of the big leagues.

The $18 million stadium is also a valuable resource for Harford County, an amenity that can double as a venue for concerts, graduations, wedding receptions and other gatherings. Add in the still-to-come second phase - a baseball academy with six more playing fields, each designed to resemble a major-league park - and Aberdeen will have one of the largest and most unusual sports and entertainment centers around.

Ripken Stadium is the second ballpark in Maryland designed by Tetra Tech Inc., an architectural office in Christiana, Del., that also designed Perdue Stadium in Salisbury. Michael Berninger was the project manager, and Trish England is the director of sports architecture. Owned by the city of Aberdeen, the stadium is home for the Single-A Aberdeen Ironbirds, an Orioles farm team. The team is owned by Ripken Baseball, headed by former Orioles Cal Ripken Jr. and Bill Ripken.

The Maryland Stadium Authority, which oversaw the building of Oriole Park, coordinated design and construction, with Gary McGuigan as project director. Baltimore Contractors was the general contractor and Heery International was responsible for project management.

Like family carnivals

The success of Ripken Stadium is that its designers never lost sight of what is most appealing about minor-league baseball - and what distinguishes it from the majors.

Although the game is clearly the draw and patrons have a chance to see the "stars of tomorrow" at a minor-league park, many people come simply for a family outing. How closely they follow the players or the action on the field is almost beside the point.

The best minor-league ballparks are like family carnivals, said Michael Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. "People come to feel a sense of community, see the green grass, smell the outdoors. They don't want to feel that they are watching overpriced athletes. They want to see players who are there for the love of the game."

Maryland has a number of minor-league parks built to provide family entertainment, noted Tetra Tech's Berninger. "The Ripkens followed in that vein."

The new stadium's exterior is impressive but not intimidating. Its brick walls, pitched roofs and Camden Green ironwork are clearly inspired by Oriole Park, without being overly derivative. Wagman Masonry of Aberdeen did an exceptional job with the brickwork.

It was appropriate to draw on the familiar imagery of Camden Yards for the home of an Orioles farm team, reasons Jeff Eiseman, the Ironbirds' general manager. Besides, he says, Oriole Park was Cal Jr.'s "office" for 10 years, and it has been copied from coast to coast. "Why knock the leader? It's so classy, there was no reason for us to do it any other way."

Aberdeen's stadium has a curved seating bowl that is tucked into a hillside with its open end facing I-95. Fans enter through an arched portal behind home plate, 20 feet above the playing field. As they enter, everyone gets an immediate glimpse of the playing field and rolling countryside beyond.

Unlike Oriole Park, Ripken Stadium has a symmetrical field - 310 feet from home plate down the right- and left-field lines, and 400 feet to center. It has only 19 rows of seating, so no one sits far from the action. Ticket prices start at $6.

Walks not just on field

The stadium also has a variety of features to encourage milling about. A wide promenade separates rows of the lower level, enabling people to walk from one end of the field to the other. Down the left-field line is a picnic area and grassy berm to supplement the fixed seating; down the right-field line is a barbecue pavilion that can be reserved.

One of the most attractive innovations is a three-tiered cafe behind home plate, available for patrons who want to have dinner and drinks during a game. No other minor-league stadium has anything like it.

The upper level has a press box behind home plate, 256 club seats and six skyboxes. Ripken Stadium is one of the first short-season Single-A ballparks to have a fully enclosed club level and skyboxes. One might not think a community the size of Aberdeen would need luxury seats, but planners say it's a good opportunity for organizations that can't afford those at Camden Yards to entertain clients and employees at a fraction of the price.

Ripken Stadium was initially planned as a venture of Maryland Baseball. When that group backed out more than a year ago, Ripken Baseball stepped in. Because Maryland Baseball was involved in the early planning, the finished building owes much to that group's expertise.

Those looking for the Ripkens' fingerprints on the project may find them in such features as the first-class clubhouse accommodations for both teams; the attention to detail shown in touches such as the handsome directional signs and the embossed "Cal Ripken Baseball" logos at the end of each row of seats; the attention paid to food service, the deluxe video board and the well-manicured field.

The Ripkens' influence is likely to be felt even more strongly on the design of the baseball academy. Expected to take shape next to Ripken Stadium, it will contain mini-versions of Camden Yards, Memorial Stadium, Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Part of the homage to Camden Yards - a $6 million, 3,500-seat stadium that will be called Cal Sr.'s Yard after Cal's late father - will be a four-story replica of the B&O; Warehouse containing office space and a walkway evoking Baltimore's Eutaw Street promenade. The replica of Memorial Stadium may use seats salvaged from there.

The architect is Heinlein Shrock Stearns of Kansas City, Mo., a design firm founded by two former principals of HOK Sports Facilities Group, the designer of Oriole Park. Construction is expected to begin this summer.

'Every year, a new ride'

Meanwhile, Ripken Baseball is still working to improve Ripken Stadium. One unfinished space along the main concourse, for example, has been suggested as a site for offices, a restaurant or a video arcade, and a Ripken Walk of Fame was coming together within the last week.

Some portion of the stadium should be used to direct visitors to other baseball-related attractions in the area, such as the Ripken Museum in Aberdeen and the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore, or mount traveling exhibits from them. More seats could be added along the sides, if necessary, and the picnic area could be developed further.

Those and many other ideas are under consideration for future seasons, Eiseman said. "Opening a stadium is like opening a theme park. Every year, you want to have a new ride, a new attraction."

Even before the fine-tuning begins, though, visitors to Ripken Stadium have an idyllic setting where they can enjoy America's pastime, and the Ironbirds have a home that should make them the envy of their league. For Aberdeen, it's a fine way to both honor and capitalize on its hometown heroes.

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