PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- It was, for the most part, a relatively meaningless exhibition game that started the final week of spring training.
But, to the Ripken brothers, it was a first, and to Nolan Ryan, it was a last -- and almost a first.
While Ryan was making the final Florida appearance of his remarkable 26-year career, Cal and Bill Ripken were playing against each other for the first time as professionals. And, for the 5,899 fans in attendance, there was no question who carried the day.
Ryan, 46, who holds the all-time record with seven regular-season no-hitters, came within one pitch of participating in his first during a preseason game. Except for a misdirected fastball that Harold Reynolds hit over the right-field fence, the Orioles would have gone without a hit in their 4-2, 10-inning loss to the Texas Rangers yesterday.
Ryan, who six days earlier had been hammered by the Chicago White Sox for 10 hits and nine earned runs, pitched the first seven innings. Other than the home run by Reynolds, which followed a walk to Leo Gomez, the legendary right-hander looked like a pitcher in his prime rather than someone who has announced his retirement effective at the end of the 1993 season.
He was as unfazed by his performance as he was nearly impossible to hit. "I had better rhythm and better body control," he said when asked the difference between this outing and his four-inning debacle against the White Sox.
Minutes before, he had left the field to a standing farewell ovation after his last exhibition appearance in Florida. He will make his final tuneup start Friday night against the Astros at the Houston Astrodome, which is about 30 miles from his home in Alvin, Texas.
That game has been sold out for weeks and already is guaranteed of attracting the biggest baseball crowd in Texas history. It will be a homecoming (he pitched for the Astros from 1980 to 1988) and a farewell for Ryan, whose participation in the game is all but mandatory.
"I'm expected to start that game," he said, "and my attitude is that I want to go out and give a good performance."
He was asked if, because of Kevin Brown's uncertainty to pitch against the Orioles a week from today, he thought he might have been given the Opening Day assignment. "No, because we made a commitment to those fans in Houston, and I think it's only appropriate to keep it,"
"With all of the off days [in April], the makeup of the rotation is not that important right now," Ryan said. "I think it's only fair to keep the commitment, and I'm looking forward to pitching in the Astrodome again."
Ryan is scheduled to pitch the Rangers' home opener a week from Friday, and said he needs another exhibition start to be ready. "My goal was to come out of spring training with 25-30 innings, and I'm on target for that," said Ryan, who has pitched 21 innings in four starts.
Cal Ripken left yesterday's game after going 0-for-3 in five innings. Before returning to the Orioles' complex in St. Petersburg, he was asked about Ryan -- and about playing against his brother, Bill, a teammate for six years who is playing second base for the Rangers.
"He's still amazing," the All-Star shortstop said of Ryan. "He threw hard and his breaking ball was good. Some of his fastballs were exploding, some weren't. When you face him, you forget he's been pitching forever," said Ripken, baseball's reigning iron man with 1,735 consecutive games played. But Ripken said he couldn't identify with what Ryan has done. "I don't know that I can make any comparison [to himself]," he said. "This is my 12th season, and it's his 27th. I can't even fathom that."
There was a time when Cal couldn't fathom playing against Bill, either, but that came to pass yesterday -- a preview of next Monday's Opening Day matchup. "It was strange seeing him in another uniform, seeing him make plays on the other side," said Cal. "But I've had time to digest what has happened.
"I would suppose it would have been different if we had played earlier in the spring."
The Orioles and Rangers had an exhibition canceled two weeks ago, and neither Ripken dressed for Friday's game, so the anticipation had waned by the time the two finally got on a field in opposing uniforms.
Still, it seemed strange when Cal tried to apply the tag as Bill stole second after getting a single that set up the Rangers' second run in the third inning.
Bill left the game an inning after Cal did, and he had departed the park by the time the game ended. The Orioles and Rangers play again this afternoon, in St. Petersburg.