Originally created 04/12/06

Ripken's insight benefits Augusta



Opening night at Lake Olmstead Stadium was about more than a fresh coat of paint and fresh faces on the farm.

Tuesday night was about a fresh franchise start, and a standing-room only crowd came to see what Cal Ripken Jr. has done with Augusta's own GreenJackets.

You only get one chance to make a first impression, and the new GreenJackets did it up right.

From the new party pavilion deck down the right field line to the kids' inflatable fun zone in left, Ripken baseball has put a touch of class in Class A. Energy was circulating through the record 5,239 fans like the breeze from six massive propeller fans underneath the bleacher canopies.

To the man who made this all possible, it looked pretty good.

"Until you see it, it doesn't really come to life," Ripken said of the improvements. "I love the integration of the batting cage, and I love the bullpen. It's in the action. It goes."

It's the integration of Ripken with Augusta that goes better than anyone could have anticipated. Augusta's relationship with Hall of Fame talent goes all the way back to native Georgian Ty Cobb, but having a destined-for-Cooperstown living legend from Maryland is a link that resonates.

To Augustans whose love for the local minor league franchise has run lukewarm for so long, it seems you can't spell "credibility" without "CR."

"When a Hall of Famer I grew up watching play decides to invest in Augusta, it's extremely exciting," Mayor Deke Copenhaver said.

Ripken understands what his name and his familiar steel-blue eyes mean to the business. A giant part of the attraction opening night was his mere presence on the mound, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. But filling the seats for the remaining 69 home games when he's not on hand will take more than just a name.

"There's a natural curiosity and there's a buildup of some credibility from sometime past," Ripken said. "By no means will we rest on that. That might get you out here the first time but it doesn't keep you here. My team is dedicated to make you want to come back, where the name doesn't mean anything anymore."

Ripken wants Lake Olmstead Stadium to become a community gathering place, and the organization he set up has made great strides toward that goal. The 6,000-square-foot, 400-person Budweiser Party Pavilion in right field is the biggest first step.

Rented out and catered by Doctor's Hospital on opening night, the deck was the perfect place to enjoy the game and everything around it. The decking wraps around the bullpen and batting cage, close enough that you can carry a conversation with the pitchers as they warm up.

Ripken says this is just a sign of good things to come.

"In the master plan you want to shoot for the moon and then you realize it's got to be paid for and got to make sense," Ripken said. "So there's a practical side and a dreamy side. Somewhere in the middle you find a happy balance. We look forward to adding something each and every year, and in a few years we'll have something here."

The GreenJackets have something now. Minor league baseball is a joy of its own that doesn't need much to sell to some people.

But the packaging can expand the reach beyond the diehards and make it the place to spend hot summer nights with family and friends.

The fresh stadium look with new banners hailing the city's past from the old Tygers to the current GreenJackets is a promising start.

"Golly, it looks great," Mayor Copenhaver said. "I guarantee you this is going to draw in the fans."

The dividends of Ripken's involvement spread beyond the ballpark.

Tuesday marked his second visit to Augusta since the fall, and he spent much of the day visiting the burn unit at Doctor's Hospital and wounded soldiers at Fort Gordon. Just being who he is and the dedicated player he was lets him brighten any room he enters.

"Going on my fifth year out of the game, I'm slowly becoming irrelevant to the kids as far as a player," he said. "There are enough people who've hung around for a while. It is amazing to me that because you were successful in baseball to stand up and have that sort of power to uplift and make people happy. Morale is an interesting thing. If you're happy and positive you tend to heal faster and love what you do, and if I can play a small role in that I'm glad to do that."

Hardly irrelevant, Ripken brought that happy, positive outlook to the ballpark. Judging from opening night and a Saturday night game already approaching a sellout, it's working wonders.

"There's a little bit of a buzz out and about in the community," Ripken said. "As things unfold we'll get a little bit better idea, but I'm very happy with where we are right now."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.