Cal Ripken Jr. delights Orioles fans and autograph seekers at Ed Smith Stadium.
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Cal Ripken Jr. spent Thursday afternoon delighting Orioles fans and autograph seekers at Ed Smith Stadium, but he still had no answer for Sarasota residents who wonder when his namesake youth baseball academy will expand to Southwest Florida.
When the Orioles agreed to move their spring training to Sarasota in 2009, part of their promise - in exchange for a $31 million stadium subsidy - was a youth baseball academy.
Ripken even issued a statement - read to commissioners - expressing excitement over the development. When a deal was struck, the Orioles touted the academy in a press release.
But somehow, the promise, which was in the initial Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), disappeared prior to signing the final lease. Four years later, there is no sign of any progress on the youth academy.
"The Orioles have enjoyed a renovated stadium for three seasons," said Pat Rounds, a member of Citizens for Responsible Government and a leading subsidy critic. "Part of the deal was a commitment to the youth baseball academy...and that just hasn't materialized."
Rounds is also upset valuable youth sports fields were given to the Orioles in the deal. Sarasota County has been struggling to provide local leagues with enough modern fields.
Ripken, nicknamed the "Iron Man" for playing in a record 2,632 consecutive games, was visiting Sarasota to promote his new children's book, Wild Pitch. His series also includes the titles Super Slugger and Hothead.
But Ripken has found most of his success since retiring through his Ripken Baseball Inc. company, which owns and operates numerous minor-league baseball teams (including the Rays' Charlotte Stone Crabs) and youth baseball academies in Aberdeen, Md., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Ripken told 10 News that the economy, which has hampered donations for a youth complex, is partially to blame for the lack of progress. Ripken has also spent the last year talking to Sarasota's neighboring Charlotte County.
Sarasota County officials tell 10 News that the Orioles' deal was a win-win since the refurbished Ed Smith Stadium is breaking attendance records and the county is reaping the economic benefits. And while commissioners say they had to drop the youth baseball requirement during final negotiations of a stadium deal, they're confident they can build some sort of youth baseball development in the near future.
The county's sports development coordinator, Patrick Calhoon, says he's happy to see the Orioles host a youth baseball tournament at Ed Smith Stadium last summer and show a willingness to committ to more. He says construction occupied their attentions through the first few years of the lease, but they're more focused now on youth events.
The Orioles had no comment on the story, but Sarasota officials acknowledge they are still talking to the team about a new facility, even if Ripken builds his own in a different county.
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