When Cal Ripken Jr. built his youth baseball facility in Aberdeen, Md., he wanted kids to get the feeling of what it is like to play in big-league stadiums. He spent heavily to construct a 3,500-seat replica of Camden Yards, complete with a hotel that stands in for the right-field warehouse in Baltimore.
The other fields aren't quite as detailed, but he added a Green Monster on his Fenway Park and with brother Billy Ripken tried to make the outfield wall of another diamond duplicate Wrigley Field.
"Billy built a fake brick wall behind (the fence), and we've put ivy around the wall,'' Ripken said. "The only problem is deer keep eating the ivy.''
One problem the Cubs don't have.
The ivy will be real for Ripken on Saturday, when he serves as a spokesman and coach for the Under Armour All America Baseball Game at Wrigley Field. This will be the fourth year that top high school players from around the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico have played this game, and the second year they've come to Chicago for the event, which really should be on any baseball junkie's calendar.
The top high school player in the country, Lance McCullers Jr. of Tampa, Fla., isn't coming. But that's because he was in the 2010 game, after his sophomore year at Jesuit High.
Hayden Hurst, a 6-5 right-hander from Jacksonville, Fla., and first baseman Ryan Ripken (Cal's son) will be two of the players watched most closely as scouts keep an eye on four days of baseball activities.
Ripken, who along with Billy founded Ripken Baseball in 2001, believes it's the type of event that makes development more fun for talented players. He acknowledges that fewer players are playing baseball in the United States because of the growth of sports such as lacrosse, hockey and soccer but sees players having the chance to play more than he did when he was growing up around Earl Weaver's Orioles.
"Kids are making specialty choices earlier than before,'' Ripken said. "But the kids who want to play baseball are getting a grander experience, which makes it fun.''
Cal and Billy got a chance to grow up in a baseball environment through their father, longtime Orioles coach Cal Sr. They remember what the game looked like when they were the wide-eyed kids, which is the experience they're trying to pass along to teenagers.
One of Cal's favorite photos is of his son, Ryan, touching home plate at Fenway Park as a 6-year-old at the 1999 All-Star Game. Cal had invited his son into the dugout after he was out of the game, and between innings they ran across the field to get to the media room.
"There's such a great feeling of being in the ballparks where the best players ever played,'' Ripken said. "Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams. That's the great history. That's what kids get out of events like these.''