ABERDEEN — Brought on late last June to replace Luis Pujols as head coach of the Aberdeen IronBirds, Kevin Bradshaw oversaw a team that remained near the bottom of the New York-Penn League standings but produced momentum at season’s end, concluding the schedule with wins in five of their last seven games.
On the eve of celebrating his first Opening Night in Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium as skipper of the Orioles’ short-season Class A affiliate, Bradshaw has set out to navigate a league that puts far more emphasis on player development than wins and losses. The journey begins tonight when the IronBirds (32-43 in 2016) host the Hudson Valley Renegades at 7:05 p.m.
“That’s a good question because I get that a lot. Of course we want to win. I’ll be the first person to sit back here and tell you I want to win, but it is about development and we have to balance that out,” Bradshaw said. “Our job as a staff, 24-7, is ‘How are we going to get these guys ready for the next level?’”
Tim Raines Jr., the son of the Hall of Fame leadoff hitter elected to Cooperstown this past January, will join Bradshaw in the dugout as the IronBirds’ newest hitting coach. He will be tasked with helping the team’s young hitters adapt to swinging wooden bats and facing some of the best, young pitching in the game.
“It is tough. It’s tough,” Raines said. “Our kids at this level are thinking it’s mechanical and I think a lot of it is mental. When they can start taking better approaches at the plate and trying to get better plans once they get into the box, I think that will help that learning curve out.”
Former Cecil County resident Brenan Hanifee, the Orioles’ fourth-round pick last season, is the highest-drafted player on this year’s Opening Night roster. The right-handed pitcher is slotted third in the rotation and is expected to pitch in the team’s road opener. Other notable IronBirds include projected Opening Night starter Nick Gruener, Zach Jarrett—the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett—and Ryan Ripken, the son of Cal Ripken Jr., the IronBirds’ owner and Orioles Hall of Famer.
Ryan Ripken, an infielder signed by the Orioles in March as a free agent, was originally drafted by the Washington Nationals in 2016, spending time with another N.Y. Penn-League team last summer—the Auburn Doubledays. He brings a veteran presence to a youthful roster.
“Obviously, I have familiarity with the team and the organization and the area. I think the big thing is I’m just excited for the start of a new season,” Ryan Ripken said. “I understand that people are going to look into the name of the stadium and relatives and the legacy that they’ve brought to the area but for me, I’m just excited to be an IronBird and focusing on Opening Day and trying to be the best that I can be to help us have a good year.
“This league ends up boasting a lot of good talent as the summer goes on. You see a lot of good power arms that come out of college. Every level is going to have a new challenge and here, for most people, it’s trying to get through a 60-70 game season. You have to just grind it out. There’s not much more to say other than that. Pitchers have more control with what they want to do and as a hitter you have to learn how to make adjustments and keep getting better.”
On Monday, players will trot on the field and fans will take their seats with a view of the stadium’s brand new, state-of-the-art video board in center field. It’s one of the many “Major League” amenities at the ballpark that makes Aberdeen one of the top venues to play or watch minor league baseball.
“There’s going to be a lot of fans here and that will bring a lot of energy,” said Hanifee, who grew up attending numerous IronBirds games as a fan living in nearby Cecil County. “I’m excited for that, for all the fans and playing in front of a bunch of people.”
Follow Jordan Schatz on Twitter: @Jordan_Whig