ABERDEEN, Md. - When Cal Ripken allowed the Babe Ruth League to affix his name to its largest youth division in 1999, the former Baltimore Orioles star didn't just kick back and wait for the endeavor to become a success.
He took over.
Under Ripken's direction, the league has grown by an average of seven percent each year. More than 700,000 kids, ages 5-12, play Cal Ripken Baseball around the world.
The showcase event is the Cal Ripken World Series, which concludes today. Over the past two weeks, thousands of visitors have come to this rural town, which once was known in sports circles solely for being the birthplace of baseball's Iron Man.
The Little League World Series still receives more exposure, but if Ripken keeps plugging away, that might not be the case in the not-so- distant future.
"We're not trying to measure our success against the Little League," Ripken said, "but we have the only league that has grown at a 7 percent clip. Our challenge is to keep on growing, and if that happens, we will have plenty more success and get plenty of attention."
The Cal Ripken World Series is an international event for 11- and 12-year-olds. Teams from the United States and such countries as Australia and Mexico compete at an impressive complex that serves as home to the Ripken-owned minor-league Aberdeen IronBirds.
A year ago, the teams played on the minor league field, which was scaled down to youth league proportions. This month, the participants have played on miniature replicas of Camden Yards, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and the Orioles' former home, Memorial Stadium.
The title game will be held at the Camden Yards stadium, which is named Cal Sr.'s Yard - a tribute to Ripken's father, a longtime Orioles fixture who died in 1999.
Ripken's mother, Vi, threw out the first pitch for the stadium's opening game two weeks ago.
"It was an emotional night, an extraordinary moment," Cal said. "I wish Dad was there to touch and feel the stadium, but I think he might be with me now more than ever."
Ripken cherishes moments like that, but he also derives a great deal of pleasure from seeing youths embrace the game that he's loved for nearly his entire life.
"This World Series isn't about crowning a champion. I think the kids will remember this as a life experience," Ripken said. "Not everyone that plays baseball gets the chance to play in a big-league ballpark, but these kids get a feel for what it's like to play in Wrigley Field, what it's like to hit a ball off the Green Monster, how it feels to play at Camden Yards."
Before Ripken took over, the league's showcase event did not have a permanent setting. Now, Aberdeen is to Cal Ripken Baseball as Williamsport, Pa., is to Little League.
"This is our third year here, and we're building momentum each time," Ripken said.
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