IronBirds' 4th season opens with full nest


When the Aberdeen IronBirds came into existence for the 2002 season, Orioles officials scrambled to find enough players to fill the roster.

The Rookie-level team at Gulf Coast was still in the club's farm system and the short-season Single-A Aberdeen franchise was a late-winter arrival to the fold, meaning precious little time was available to amply stock both squads since the June draft nearly coincided with their openings.

But when the IronBirds begin their new season tonight at Ripken Stadium against the Hudson Valley Renegades, the opposite problem will prevail. With the Gulf Coast team now defunct, there are too many bodies to fill too few spots.

New manager Andy Etchebarren said: "We have to make a lot of choices. We've got 16 or 17 pitchers to pick from, and with fairly high draft choices, you have to play them. It's hard to even consider a steady lineup yet."

New York-Penn League rules allow only 25 active on the roster at any one time with a limit of four that are 23 or older on July 1. The IronBirds came north from extended spring training with 35 and the prospect of several more June draftees being assigned to them. Ten players were at least 23.

Of the recent high draft picks, left-handed pitcher Garrett Olson (No. 48 overall) is with the IronBirds and outfielder Nolan Reimold (61st overall) is expected to join him.

Etchebarren, who has been a roving catching instructor of late, has managed at all levels of the Orioles' system, including four years with the Rookie-level team at Bluefield, so he is familiar with dealing with younger prospects.

Aberdeen will be striving for its first winning record after an exhaustive late-season road trip last year led to a swoon and a 35-40 finish. The team's best record was 38-38 in 2003.

"We have a lot of guys who were with us at the end of last season [14] who will bring experience in this league," said general manager Jeff Eiseman. "And this year we won't have that long road trip at the end. We'll be home during the Cal Ripken World Series because the Camden Yards stadium [at the Ripken complex] will be ready for the series."

The IronBirds have been a resounding success at the gate, selling out for three straight seasons. They are well on their way to a fourth in a row, which would make them the second team in minor league history to fill to capacity in its first four years.

"Physically, we've sold more tickets to date than in any previous season," Eiseman said. "We hold back some for game-day sale, but they'll be scooped up quickly."

Among the new features at Ripken Stadium will be additions to the crab menu that features all-you-can-eat hard crabs, portions of the Cal Ripken museum on display on the club level, and new uniforms with sleeveless jerseys.

Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams will join Vi Ripken, E.J. Henderson and Art Modell as a ceremonial tosser of the season's first pitch tonight. Cal Ripken will receive. The pre-game program includes fireworks and a flyover.

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