ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- This is his 15th spring training camp, and it has been almost that many years since he signed his first professional contract (June 13, 1978), but Cal Ripken says he never had a clue it would come to this.
He has progressed from a 6-foot-2, 180-pound prospect to a 6-4, 220-pound superstar who is virtually assured of entering the Hall of Fame at the earliest opportunity. He wears his reputation with a combination of pride and awe.
"It makes you feel good that some people feel that way," Ripken said during a break in the Orioles' preparation for the 1993 season. "It's very flattering, but I look at it with a lot of skepticism.
"I'm proud of what I've accomplished and the success I've had. There have been a lot of good moments. But there's no way that I would have thought I would have developed the way I have. It is far beyond my hopes."
Ripken said he can remember his first days in baseball as though they took place last week.
"In those days, I hoped to be good enough to eventually make the big leagues," he said. "But the fears outweighed the hopes at least 10-to-1.
"The numbers alone tell you that the odds are so much against you. I can remember taking ground balls my first day in Bluefield [W.Va., home of the Orioles' Rookie League team].
"Bobby Bonner had come out of Texas A&M;, and his skills were much greater than mine. I watched him and thought to myself, 'God, I'm never going to play.' But, a couple of days later, they sent him up to Double-A."
At the time, Ripken was two months shy of his 18th birthday. He was as impressionable as any other kid trying to live a dream the odds say is impossible.
But he quickly established himself as the best prospect in the club's minor-league system. Within three years, he was in the first of his 13 big-league spring training camps, the next season he was Rookie of the Year and the following year he was the Most Valuable Player and began his current run of 10 straight All-Star appearances.
The peaks far have outnumbered the valleys -- but there have been down periods along the way. The first came during his first exposure to the big leagues late in 1981, when he hit only .128 in 23 games.
The most recent came last winter, when his father, Cal Sr., was dropped from the team's coaching staff, and his brother, Bill, his double-play partner for most of the past six years, was released. The moves came within four months of his signing a five-year, $30 million contract that seemed to ensure that the family that played together would stay together.
Ripken said he doesn't agree with the moves, but they don't cause him to second-guess his decision to sign a new contract last August, rather than wait to test the free-agent market during the off-season.
"Regrets?" he said, repeating the question. "No. Because when you make a decision, you do it based on the needs of your individual family. I guess that means you've grown up.
"Everybody always wanted to tie my dad, Bill and me together," said Ripken. "But we all have to make decisions based on individual needs. Dad has to make his decisions, Bill has to make his decisions, and I have to make my decisions.
"It was a decision [to sign a new contract] I had to make -- and only I could make it. No, I don't have any regrets."
He does, however, admit to regrets about the sequence of events in 1992.
"There was never a moment [during last season] when I doubted my skill levels," he said. "But there were outside things [the contract negotiations] that I could've controlled differently, but I didn't.
"There was a lot I didn't like about last year. I didn't like the way I handled some things -- but I have to take the mistakes and see what I can make them do [positively] for me. I allowed the negotiations to go into the season because I don't believe in deadlines. I didn't think it would affect my play -- and because I had made the decision I wanted to stay.
"If I had it to do over again, I'd probably say if you want to do it [a new contract], let's get it done now [before the season] or call it off, without any hard feelings, until after the season. I chose not to do that because I thought I could handle it."
The influence of the "other" side of the game is the major difference that Ripken notices about the changing face of baseball.
"Sometimes, the business side of the game rears its ugly head," he said when asked if the game was still fun. "If you're able to get all of that stuff out of your head, the game is still a lot of fun.
"When I first came, the game was much more a sport. You didn't have television coverage of every game like you do today. Now, because of all the coverage, it's more a form of entertainment. You just have to accept it as a part of the change of the game."
In some ways, this coming season is similar to Ripken's first full year in the big leagues. Then, he was coming off that brief, .128 introduction to big-league pitching. Now, he's coming off the poorest offensive year of his career.
"After that first year, I went to Puerto Rico for a second year to get my confidence back -- and to learn to play shortstop," said Ripken.
But Bonner, whose skills Ripken thought would deter his progress, hadn't impressed then-manager Earl Weaver. To this day, Weaver says that moving Ripken from third base to shortstop (which he did July 1, 1982) was the smartest thing he ever did.
From the outset, Ripken had his doubters, primarily because of his size.
He continued to grow for the first six or seven years of his career. He added 2 inches before leveling off at his present height, and he gained about 5 pounds each year, causing the cynics to wonder how much he could gain and continue to play shortstop.
"That stopped a long time ago," said Ripken, whose playing weight has not varied in the past seven years. And, over the years, he has gone from being a starry-eyed prospect to a superstar. Ripken said he is aware that others watch him today the same way he looked at veterans in his early years.
"When I first started going to the All-Star Game, I was young and in the minority," he said. "Now, it seems there's a new crop of young talent -- and I'm back in the minority again."
L He is aware, but cautious, of his status with young players.
"I know I have an influence on a lot of people," said Ripken, "but I try not to think about it. I don't act a certain way just because people might be watching."
The one piece of advice he would give to any young player, though, is not to try being like somebody else.
"When I played third base, I wanted to be like Brooks [Robinson]," he said. "But I found out I couldn't. I had to be me.
"When I moved to shortstop, I realized I couldn't play shortstop like [Mark] Belanger or [Alan] Trammell. I had to find out how I could play it best."
At 32, Ripken almost certainly is on the downside of his career. But he looks at it from the perspective of what is still ahead.
His 1,735-game streak notwithstanding, Ripken said his only goal is self-satisfaction.
"My biggest goal," Ripken said, "is that when my career is over and I'm sitting in a rocking chair, that I don't have any regrets. I want to feel satisfied that I played as long as I could and did as well as I could do.
"When it's over, I want to be able to say I did all I could do. There was no more."
And he seems convinced that last year was not a sign of imminent decline. "It seemed like I regrouped four different times last year," he said. "I was able to do it [successfully] two or three times.
"There would be weeks of excitement [when contract talks appeared to be progressing], followed by a period of disappointment, and then regrouping.
"At one point, I felt I had fully regrouped. My average got up to about .295 shortly before the All-Star break, then I hit a lull that was completely normal -- it had nothing to do with anything else."
On June 29 last year, Ripken was hitting .290, with 10 home runs and 38 RBI -- not a great pace, but hardly anything that hinted of his final numbers (.251, 14, 72). But he seems sure he can return to the form that earned him two American League MVP awards.
"I know I can do it again," said Ripken, who is hitting .344 this spring with two home runs and four RBI in 12 games. "I don't know how you describe 'it,' but, whatever it is, I feel like I have it. I feel very confident."
Cal Ripken ranks among major-league leaders over the past 10 years (1983-1992) in several offensive categories:
Cal Ripken ........ 611
Andre Dawson ...... 580
Ryne Sandberg ..... 573
Don Mattingly ..... 570
George Bell ....... 567
Eddie Murray ...... 976
Dawson ........... 955
Bell ....... ...... 926
Ripken ............ 921
Mattingly ......... 912
Rickey Henderson .... 1104
Wade Boggs .......... 1016
Brett Butler ......... 996
Tim Raines ........... 979
Ripken ...... ........ 952
Boggs ............ 1980
Kirby Puckett .... 1812
Tony Gwynn ....... 1809
Sandberg ......... 1766
Ripken ........... 1759
Boggs ........... 408
Mattingly ....... 363
Ripken .......... 337
Butler .......... 331
Tim Wallach ..... 320