Yesterday morning I decided I wanted to go to a baseball game. I’d not been to one in three weeks, work had been overwhelming, and my soul was missing green fields, blue skies, the crack of the bat, the smell of grilling meats.
But Harrisburg (first choice) was out of town, York (second choice) was also out of town, and Lancaster (a plausible third choice) was in Texas. I think the Orioles might’ve been playing at home (ah, they were — blown out by the Astros) but with the Light Rail situation (namely, it’s not running downtown) that would have been a chore, so I looked to see if the Aberdeen Ironbirds were playing at home.
They were playing the Staten Island Yankees at Ripken Stadium. Aberdeen’s not that far — about forty miles and near enough to a straight shot from Dallastown — so a ticket was purchased and I drove down in the afternoon… after changing a flat tire.
The Ironbirds are part of the New York-Penn League which, despite its name, has teams from Vermont and Massachusetts to West Virginia and Ohio. Classified as Short Season A, the NY-P League begins its season in late June, after the MLB draft, and its players are largely recent draftees, though sometimes you’ll see a player on a rehab assignment. By and large, these are very young players without much, if any, professional experience.
The Ironbirds were, and still are, owned by Cal Ripken, Jr. — though there’s a strange fight over the stadium itself with the city of Aberdeen, and I believe he’s been trying to sell the team — and my friend Jason, who was a huge Ripken fan, often talked about how we should go to a game. Sadly, we never had the chance; he died in November 2007.
Pleasant summer drives soothe the soul. Well, my soul, anyway. It was an afternoon where I drove through Pennsylvania farm country, the sun bright, the clouds lazy, the odor of hay and cow manure prominent in the air. It was refreshing.
I thought briefly about crossing the Susquehanna and driving out to Little Britain to explore a cemetery where my great-great-grandparents and their family are buried. I’d been there quickly in May, on my way to the Fair Hill Scottish Games, since my route took me past it, but i didn’t have my notes in order nor time to pull them together for a more complete exploration. If my decision to attend an Ironbirds game hadn’t been so spontaneous and impromptu, if I’d had the time to prepare, then I might have. Perhaps in the autumn.
When I crossed Route 1 in Maryland, with a Royal Farms on one side and a WaWa on the other, I thought, “Oh, I know this place,” because I did; I’d stopped at that WaWa for coffee last spring when I went exploring cemeteries in Cecil County.
I’d not been to an Aberdeen Ironbirds game since 2008. My first two years with Diamond Comic Distributors the company would regularly give out tickets to Ironbirds games, and I would regularly take them. The seats that Diamond had were immediately behind home plate, in the front row, right behind the screen. Once or twice, the tickets even came with a VIP parking pass. On the days that I’d get tickets, I’d leave work early, pick up my dad, and go. Once, Cal Ripken, Jr. stood on the field, right in front of me, for pre-game festivities; if he noticed me, he had no idea that, a decade earlier, I’d processed his life insurance payments for First Colony Life Insurance. The Great Recession, though, ended the free Ironbirds tickets as well as the free Orioles tickets, though Diamond’s owner, Steve Geppi, still has, to this day, a block of seats behind the first base dugout at Camden Yards.
My seat last night was not as good as the seats I had then. I sat on the first base side, just above the moat that splits the seating bowl.
The ticket was more expensive than a ticket in Harrisburg, even slightly higher than York. To be fair, i bought the ticket yesterday morning, and Aberdeen’s day-of-game pricing is higher, but even if I’d bought it Friday it would have been more than a comparable ticket closer to home.
Ripken Stadium — technically, Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium — is reminiscent of the ballparks in Frederick, York, and Lancaster as they’re all built to the same basic plan. The grandstands are all similar. The major differences are in the size of the concourses and whether the seating bowl is split (yes, in Frederick and Aberdeen; no, in York and Lancaster).
I’d call Ripken a better, nicer version of Frederick’s Harry Grove Stadium; Harry Grove has a bigger seating bowl, but its concourses are so narrow as to be almost impassable at times. And even though the stadiums in York and Lancaster are newer, Aberdeen feels nicer in subjective ways I can’t quantify.
There’s not a lot in the way of protective netting at Ripken Stadium.
Last night’s game was Baltimore Sport Night — the Baltimore Ravens marching band was on hand, along with several Ravens cheerleaders, the mascot Poe, and former Ravens head coach Brian Billick. There was also a pre-game “Catch on the Outfield.”
If I remember correctly, Interstate 95 is just beyond the video board. The row of trees isn’t the most inspirational outfield view, but it’s a damn sight better than the Great Wall of Ads that mars Frederick.
I bought a cheeseburger and a beer before the game. The cheeseburger was fine, and the beer came in a plastic cup with a stylized version of Cal Ripken’s face on its side. I’m sure the novelty cup isn’t meant to be kept — it’s just a plastic, see-through cup — but I kept it anyway. As for souvenirs, I bought a novelty Ironbirds baseball, the 2019 baseball card set, and because it was on sale for seven dollars, a hat from 2018 when the Ironbirds played their Sunday games as the Aberdeen Star-Spangled Banners. I’d intended to buy no apparel at all.
The Ironbirds have two mascots, both birds of some type. The one in the flight suit and goggles is Ripcord. He was also the more energetic and expressive of the two. He companion, Ferrous, seemed a bit bland by contrast. Ripcord had personality. Ferrous was just there.
Ceremonial first pitches were thrown out by a former Orioles pitcher who had pitched for Aberdeen about a decade ago, someone from the military, Billick, and former Oriole (and former Baltimore Redbirds manager) Larry Sheets. Billick later signed autographs for fans on the concourse.
Line-up cards were exchanged, a local little league team ran out onto the field with the players, and the Ravens marching band played the Star-Spangled Banner. I winced when a large part of the crowd shouted “O!” when the national anthem reached, “O, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave.” I know it’s an Orioles tradition, yet it irks me, not for anything to do with the national anthem itself but because it disrespects the performer and their performance.
The crowd seemed sparse to me. It certainly looks sparse in my photos. I was sitting next to a family who disappeared even before the first pitch, and the family behind me, their grandson kept disappearing for long stretches of the game.
The Ironbirds scored first. Staten Island starter Blakely Brown gave up a triple on his first pitch of the game to Shayne Fontana, and he was brought in on a sacrifice fly by Adley Rutschman, the Orioles’ first round draft pick (and #1 overall) in the 2019 draft.
The Yankees responded in the second, putting two runs on the board.
After that, the game settled down, and the innings went by quickly. The game started at 6:05, and by seven o’clock it was already into the fifth inning.
In the fifth, the Ironbirds loaded the based on Brown with two walks and a muffled sacrifice bunt. A single into left from Clay Fisher tied the game, and a sacrifice to center by Shayne Fontana put the Ironbirds up 3-2. Brown loaded the bases again with another walk, and the Yankees brought in Derek Craft to limit the damage. With two strikeouts, he ended the Ironbirds threat.
The Ironbirds used a sound effect I didn’t expect to hear — Hawk Harrelson saying “He gone” on strikeouts and when the Yankees made a pitching change — and hearing it was deeply weird. First, Harrelson had nothing to do with the Orioles; he was the Chicago White Sox television announcer. And second, “He gone” was Harrelson’s home run call when “the good guys” (ie., the White Sox) hit a home run. Out of context, it fit the moment. The guy punches out, ‘he gone.” The pitcher walks back to the dugout, “he gone.” But knowing the context, it was strange.
In the eighth, the Ironbrids brought Connor Gillespie in to pitch. He gave up a hit into left to Matt Pita, and Pita was thrown out at second while trying to stretch his single into a double. Gillespie then gave up a triple to Luis Santos, and a sacrifice fly to right by Ezequiel Duran tied the game.
In the bottom half of the inning, the Ironbirds’ first two batters reached base on singles, then Staten Island brought Justin Wilson into pitch. A sacrifice fly put both runners into scoring positiion, Wilson struck out the next batter, then he loaded the based on a walk, but a broken bat hit by Irving Ortega to short and a force out at second ended the Ironbirds threat.
Staten Island went weakly in the top half of the ninth.
Wilson returned to the mound in the bottom half of the ninth. After working the count full, Dexter Hoiles took a walk. Clay Fisher dropped a bunt to advance Hoiles to second, then a sacrifice fly to right by Shayne Fontana moved Hoiles to third.
Adley Rutschman stepped to the plate, two outs and the winning run on third.
He singled into center.
The crowd roared.
Ironbirds walked it off.
The dugout exploded, and the Ironbirds chased Rutschman into center, dousing him with coolers from both the dugout and the bullpen.
The Aberdeen faithful flowed happily through the Ripken Stadium gates into the August twilight.
There was a trivia question during the game. The answer given was correct, if certain assumptions are made, and also wrong, if other assumptions are made. In other words, the question was ambiguous, and it’s something I’ll address in a future (though partially written) post.
The drive home was pleasant. I drove with the windows down, the sky descending into darkness. I was home by ten.
I had a nice outing. I don’t know when — or if — I’ll attend another Ironbirds game — certainly not this year, with the minor league season ending in three weeks — but it’s nice to know that Aberdeen in a reasonable option when I need a baseball game.