It would have been a beautiful afternoon for a ballgame, but the 100 or so dignitaries who showed up at the ball fields behind James Mosher Elementary School in West Baltimore on Friday were looking forward to an even better event.
The occasion was the groundbreaking ceremony at the future site of Eddie Murray Field at BGE Park, which will be the 61st youth development park created through the partnerships fostered by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.
They're all special, but this one brought out all the heavy hitters to honor Murray, the Hall of Fame first baseman who spent most of his terrific career with the Orioles. Former teammates Cal Ripken Jr. and Brooks Robinson joined Baltimore mayor-elect Catherine Pugh and City Council president Jack Young, taking part in the shovel ceremony along with the event's biggest sponsors at the home field of the longest continuously operating African-American youth baseball league.
"When you're sitting here and looking out at all these people, this is truly a partnership and the way it's really supposed to work," Ripken told the crowd. "There's an energy. There's a joy. There's a common thread that we care about the kids. Sports does have a benefit. Sports can shape you. It can give you all kinds of lessons, and it can keep you safe."
Murray had to sit through testimonials that poked fun at his reluctance to place himself in such public situations, but it was obvious how proud he was to have his name attached to such an important community initiative.
"This is, I think, going to be an outstanding place to come," Murray said. "When I saw the board out there of the replica of what the field should be, you couldn't help but light up and smile. …That is really, really nice."
Baltimore Gas and Electric is the major sponsor of the project, which is benefiting from one of three large legacy gifts awarded by the company during its 200th anniversary year. The partnership also includes the Ollie's Bargain Outlet retail chain, Plank Industries, Bon Secours Health System, T. Rowe Price and Lewis Construction.
BGE chief executive officer Calvin Butler said on Friday that it was no coincidence the foundation and its sponsors chose a site so near the unrest that placed Baltimore in a negative national spotlight following the death of Freddie Gray last year.
"That's why we did it," he said. "It was no mistake that we chose the James Mosher Little League. It was no mistake that we chose West Baltimore to come to, because we know people are watching. And when they watch, we want them to be amazed by what we produce. These kids, we want to let them know that just because people say you can't, we're letting you know we're investing in you because we know you can."
James Mosher Baseball, which has been in continuous operation since 1960, will soon feature a synthetic turf baseball diamond, dugouts, a backstop and a digital scoreboard. Upon completion, it will be turned over to the Baltimore City Public School system, but Murray promised that his presence Friday will not be a one-time thing.
"This is going to be a nice piece of property here in the city if everybody stays together," he said, "and I'm going to be here. I'm going to come back other than the ribbon-cutting. I'll be back."
The incoming mayor was looking directly at Murray when she put the purpose of the event into perspective.
"To name this field for such a legend in our community and someone who has just done such great work has made all of us proud," Pugh said, "and I know you're proud of this but we're so proud of you."
Pugh and Mosher Baseball president William Neal also made sure to recognize the work of the faithful group of coaches and mentors who have kept the Mosher league thriving for nearly six decades.
Young talked before the ceremony about the importance of creating high-quality facilities for kids and reflected on Thursday's ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly unveiled Babe Ruth Field at Gibbons Commons.
"This is really, really important because our children need something nice to play on," Young said. "If you look at the field they opened yesterday, over at Seton Park — and I envision they're going to do the same thing here — it's a win-win for the kids. …This is one of the oldest leagues around. These kids come out here every day during the baseball season and that's going to attract more kids. So you're going to have kids from all over wanting to join and they're going to have to expand the league."
Ripken took some time after the ceremony to reflect on a 15-year journey that has taken him and the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation all over the country to benefit at-risk kids by helping improve youth athletic facilities and create mentorship opportunities through sport.
He said his father could never have imagined what the foundation and its partners have been able to accomplish.
"No, because I couldn't envision it," Ripken said. "I know that when we lost Dad, we really wanted to put a meaning for us on his life and it was about the development of kids. And it was obviously kids in the minor leagues. He helped them and in many ways was a father to many of those kids who went away [from home] to play baseball. But the real secret was to watch him use clinics in the communities and deliver a message to those kids and use baseball to do it, and I never really fully grasped that because he was away from us so much.
"Looking back, he was really great at using baseball to get kids interested. But really, he wasn't really trying to find the next generation of baseball players. He was just trying to help the kids and use baseball to do that."
Ripken compared Murray to Cal Sr., pointing out that neither was particularly interested in getting any recognition for their efforts either on or off the baseball field.
"Like I tried to communicate about Ed, Dad never did things to get attention," Ripken said. "He just did things because he knew they were right. … Dad would have been just like Ed. Dad would have just said, 'I'll come out after you finish with all this hoopla and I'll come out and do the real work,' which is with the kids. And I suspect Eddie will be a little like that, too."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.