SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- They stood near the door inside the Orioles' clubhouse, waiting to catch a glance of Cal Ripken as he emerged for his first workout.
They came from Baltimore and Newbury Park, Calif., Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and Corpus Christi, Texas -- all middle infielders in the Orioles' farm system, all worshiping the same idol.
"We call him 'the man, the god of baseball,' " said Matt Riemer, a Patapsco High School graduate who was the Orioles' 48th-round draft pick in 1991.
It's one thing to see Ripken as a larger-than-life figure on the huge Nike mural in Baltimore. It was another to see it on the eager faces of the minor-leaguers yesterday at Twin Lakes Park.
Jesse Garcia, 20, asked Ripken to autograph two baseballs -- one for himself, one for his father. "I was so nervous," he said, "I dropped one of the balls right in front of him."
David Lamb, 18, leaned against a backstop as Ripken took grounders, following his every move, clutching a camera, standing in awe.
"He walked right by me," he said. "It felt kind of like a dream. I couldn't believe he was there. Actually, I couldn't believe I was there."
Lamb, a shortstop, was the Orioles' second-round draft pick out of Newbury Park (Calif.) H.S. in 1993. Now, he's one of 36 select minor-leaguers attending an early mini-camp at Twin Lakes Park.
The Orioles use the camp as a substitute for the Florida Instructional League. Many of the players are still in their teens, but they dress in the same clubhouse as $30 million superstars.
The firsthand exposure only increases their incentive, and six players from last year's camp -- the first staged by the Orioles -- recently graduated to the club's 40-man roster.
Indeed, the benefits were more than evident yesterday, when Lamb, Garcia and shortstop Angel Pagan stayed to watch Ripken after they were finished their own workout.
"Were they disappointed?" Ripken asked.
Joking aside, Ripken once was just as starry-eyed -- a kid from Aberdeen, emulating shortstop Mark Belanger, dreaming of playing for his hometown team.
Now he's 33, a two-time MVP, 11-time All-Star and 12-year major-league veteran. He knows the kids are watching him closely. And he's not entirely sure he likes it.
"It's a sign of age, that's how I look at it," Ripken said, smiling. "In some ways, it makes you feel old. In other ways, it makes you feel good.
"It makes you feel uncomfortable a little bit. When you're here, you're a ballplayer. Sometimes they don't know that until they meet you and get to know you.
"But it's very flattering. I used to be perceived as one of the young kids myself. Now times have changed. Some of these guys coming in now were kids when we won the World Series."
Lamb, in fact, was 8 years old. Today, he's 6 feet 2 and 165 !! pounds -- the same height and only 15 pounds lighter than Ripken wasas a second-round pick out of high school in 1978.
Naturally, Lamb wants to follow the same path. Naturally, he wants to meet his idol. "I wouldn't know what to say," he said. "But it would be pretty nice."
Garcia summoned the courage to approach Ripken before yesterday's workout. For all Ripken knew, he was a clubhouse boy. The 5-foot-10, 155-pound Garcia was in a T-shirt and shorts.
Ripken didn't have time to autograph Garcia's baseballs, but promised to sign them eventually. He is not above making time for young players -- just ask Riemer, the kid from Patapsco.
Riemer is so devoted to Ripken, he applies eye black the same way, throws sidearm the same way and wore No. 8 his first season at Bluefield.
"I wrote him a letter last year," Riemer said. "I just talked about how the people who coached him are now coaching me. I played at Bluefield. He played at Bluefield.
"I told him how the coaches here were trying to change me, to get on top of the ball when I throw. I asked, 'What do you think?'
"He wrote me back. He congratulated me for being with the Orioles. And he said when you develop your arm action, do whatever feels comfortable."
It's no longer an issue -- Riemer is now playing third base and left field -- but he can't forget the letter, nor the time he met Ripken after an off-season workout at Camden Yards.
"He's a guy I've idolized since I was 8 years old," Riemer said. "Every time I see him, it makes me want to get to where he's at in life. He kind of owns Baltimore. He runs the town."
Ripken might laugh at such words, if he didn't once view older players the same way. "Sometimes you'd watch how they got dressed," he said. "Like they knew something you didn't."
Now Matt Riemer, David Lamb, Jesse Garcia and Angel Pagan can see the truth for themselves. There was Cal Ripken yesterday, putting on his pants yesterday, one leg at a time.