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07/28/07 7:17 PM ET

Game plays second fiddle to Ripken

IronBirds beat Tigers, but fans more interested in O's legend

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Wearing their road grays, the Aberdeen IronBirds laid a quick and easy claim to the home crowd's loyalties on Saturday afternoon.

All it took to get the 9,000 fans who packed Doubleday Field on their feet, roaring and whooping and clapping, was for the IronBirds' owner to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Aberdeen played the Oneonta Tigers. Cal Ripken Jr. has had that effect on people before, and he did so again on Saturday.

Ripken fired a perfect strike, while his wife, Kelly, and teenage kids, Rachel and Ryan, also delivered pitches. Then Ripken, wearing a sharp navy suit over a dark shirt, waved his thanks. An equally fashion-conscious crowd chanted in unison -- "Thank you Cal!" -- while standing proud in a sea of Orioles orange and black.

Only a few lonely Tigers fans dotted the grandstand. One of them was Timothy Kearney, who made the 20-mile drive north from Oneonta, N.Y., and sat a couple of dozen rows up from the backstop.

"They deserve to have those numbers on," said Kearney, observing the Ripken jerseys around him. "So I don't bother. They have a right to have them on. Cal was a great ballplayer."

Players on the IronBirds and Tigers also clapped, entranced by the 2007 Hall of Fame inductee. No player on either Class A New York/Penn League squad had yet been born when Baltimore drafted the now 46-year-old Ripken in the second round in 1978.

The youngest player on either roster, Aberdeen left-hander Zachary Britton, was seven years old when Ripken captured the nation's attention by breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record in 1995. The oldest player, IronBirds righty Sean Tracey, was 14 years old.

"This is just beyond belief," said Aberdeen pitcher Joe Esposito. "It's probably the coolest game I've ever been a part of."

Esposito said the IronBirds have had plenty of chances -- "He's just real" -- to meet Ripken, who bought the team and moved it to Maryland from Utica, N.Y., in 2002. They play in front of sell-out crowds at Aberdeen's Ripken Stadium, where the atmosphere can be "electric."

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"But there's a little more of an anticipation here," Esposito said. "A little more excitement, shall we say. Especially with a guy like Cal Ripken, American hero like he is, you know. We see him every now and then, but this is something special."

Ripken lingered on the mound after throwing the first pitch, then shook hands with several IronBirds players. Then he approached the star-struck Tigers, signing autographs and shaking hands with them patiently, one by one.

Pressed on by security and late for a press conference, Ripken slowly made his way out of the stadium, signing autographs for several minutes, as hundreds of Orioles fans craned their necks and applauded outside.

"At home games," remembered Steve Cook, who made the trip up from Baltimore, "[Ripken] would, for two and three hours at a time, stay out after home games, and just continue to sign for everybody. It was a daily occurrence for Cal.

"I've never seen this many people here at Cooperstown. It speaks to the quality of man that he is."

Not even Ripken's departure, Aberdeen's second consecutive blown ninth-inning lead or the periodic rain that fell cool and light on the field of play could dampen the crowd's enthusiasm for its hero and his team.

The IronBirds won, 10-8, in 10 innings. The fans would've left happy, anyway.

Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.