In case you haven't noticed, they take their minor league baseball pretty seriously up in Aberdeen. And on opening night, the IronBirds pull out pretty much all the stops.
For starters, Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams was on hand to throw out the first pitch last night. Cal Ripken, the IronBirds' owner and an all-but-certain Hall of Fame shortstop for the Orioles, got behind the plate to catch it, and then everyone's eyes turned skyward as four A-10 jets from Warfield Air National Guard Base did a flyover during the national anthem.
The aroma of pit barbecue wafted throughout Ripken Stadium, and the lines in the freshly cut grass were so sharp, they looked like they could have been put on with a paint brush.
Perhaps most impressively, a record crowd of 6,411 showed up to watch the IronBirds drop their opener, 8-1, to the Hudson Valley Renegades, marking the 114th consecutive sellout for Aberdeen.
The IronBirds, entering their fourth year of existence, have sold out every home game in the history of the franchise. Ripken Stadium has an official capacity of 5,800, but the IronBirds regularly fill up the facility's standing-room-only sections.
Though there was plenty of pomp and circumstance, the play last night was a bit of a mixed bag, especially for the IronBirds, who are being managed this year by Andy Etchebarren, a former Orioles catcher and two-time All-Star (1966-67).
"You're going to have games like this," Etchebarren said. "I thought except for one inning we played pretty well."
Designated hitter Nolan Reimold got the first hit of the season for the IronBirds, sending a double to left-center in the second inning off the Renegades' Wade Davis. The next batter, third baseman Matt Pulley, followed with a double of his own, driving in Reimold to make it 1-0.
That lead seemed like it might be plenty for IronBirds left-hander Ryan Schwabe, who mowed down Hudson Valley's hitters with a variety of off-speed pitches.
Schwabe, selected by the Orioles in the 23rd round of the 2004 draft out of Louisiana-Monroe, pitched 6 1/3 shutout innings and left the game after throwing 71 pitches, giving up just four hits and striking out eight without recording a walk.
"I felt like I had good control will all three of my pitches - fastball, curveball and changeup," Schwabe said. "That's a pretty rare feeling. Things didn't go our way tonight, but I think we're all looking forward to having a good season."
Including a brief stint last year with the team, Schwabe, whose father, Dean, flew out from Iowa to watch the opener, has now given up just two earned runs in 23 1/3 innings with Aberdeen, but still doesn't have a victory to show for it.
While the Renegades struggled to scrape together hits off Schwabe, they teed off against the IronBirds' bullpen.
After Schwabe left in the seventh, Hudson Valley scored six runs, including four off IronBirds reliever James Hoey, who gave up a pair of two-run doubles to Fernando Frias and Rhyne Hughes. Hoey (0-1), who is trying to come back from liagment-replacement surgery, threw 30 pitches in the seventh, gave up four hits and walked two, and failed to record an out before he was removed by Etchebarren.
The Renegades added to their advantage in the eighth, sending most of the fans to the exits, when designated hitter Ryder Matthias crushed a two-run homer off Ryan Dumsnil to make it 8-1.
Hudson Valley's bullpen didn't give up a hit over the final four innings as Roberto Gil (1-0) and Rich De Los Santos combined to silence the IronBirds' bats.
"That's baseball at this level," Etchebarren said. "We'll have lots more games like that. We only made one error, and I'd take that every night if I could."