FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A friend debated with Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken during the winter whether the fan and media frenzy over his consecutive-game streak would fade this season. Of course it will, Ripken said.
Of course he was wrong, although Ripken has always admitted he never quite understood why he gets so much attention. A herd of autograph-seekers and a funnel of TV cameras awaited Ripken as he came out of the dugout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday for the first full-squad workout of spring, tracking each of his steps, each smile, each throw, each swing of the bat.
When Roberto Alomar, the superstar second baseman signed by the Orioles in December, made his initial appearance on the field, polite applause followed, a few yelps of Roberto.
He served as the opening act for a crowd clearly primed for Ripken, who will begin this season with a streak of 2,153 consecutive games. Early in the morning, Orioles outfielder Bobby Bonilla yelled to the fans, "I just want to let you all know, he's going to be out in about an hour."
Somebody asked Bonilla if he would sign autographs. Bonilla shook his head and yelled. "I'm one of the bad guys," he said.
And Ripken has become something close to a baseball deity, judging from the reaction of the fans at the moment he finally appeared. A crowd of about 1,000 fans burst into cheers, and collectively beckoned him to the stands. Orioles manager Davey Johnson said he'd never seen anything quite like it. "You get used to kids yelling for autographs," he said. "But [with Ripken] it's kind of like a panic -- Caaaalllll!"
Ripken moved toward the stands and explained he had to practice, and promised he would return afterward to sign. For the next three hours, Ripken warmed up (playing catch with brother Bill, who is in camp trying to win a job with the team), fielded grounders, exchanged throws with Alomar, and took batting practice, displaying yet another stance.
Then, with sweat crawling down the sides of his face, Ripken walked over to the stands to sign, and it was 1995 all over again: little boys and girls and grown men and women all reaching out, some holding baseballs, one a box of Wheaties, others just hoping to shake his hand. For almost an hour it went like this, until Ripken finally ran off to sit next to Alomar in front of a roomful of reporters.
"I'd love the main focus of attention," Ripken said, "to be on winning, and the pennant race, more than on me."
That can only happen if the Orioles match the expectations many have for them, after an off-season in which they hired Johnson and general manager Pat Gillick and acquired Alomar, closer Randy Myers, third baseman B. J. Surhoff and left-handers David Wells and Kent Mercker.
Assistant general manager Kevin Malone said that walking into the Orioles' clubhouse is like walking into the clubhouse during an All-Star Game, and even Ripken acknowledged that seeing so many great players gathered on the same team is exciting.
"You keep up with it during the off-season, see who they're getting," Ripken said, "but the full meaning of it doesn't really hit you until you're out on the field. There's always a certain amount of optimism in spring training . . . but with all the changes we've made, the talent we've added, it's easy to get a little more excited about our chances.
"Still, you try to guard some of that optimism. You have to play together and earn the championship, you have to go out there and win."
Ripken, who'll turn 36 before the season ends, said his off-season was atypical, with the number of requests for personal appearances increasing "20-fold or 30-fold." He said, "it was impossible to do everything. You try to guard the time with your family, during the time you're off, and it's critical that you do that. But at the same time, I was busier more than I have been.
"I worked out, and tried to be regular [in his regimen], where you work out at 9 a.m., and I found myself having to rearrange things all the time. It was a busy time. It seemed like it was a long winter, in some respects, and a short winter in some respects. I'm glad to be back in a baseball uniform."
Ripken expressed excitement over the possibility of playing with brother Bill again. "Obviously, for personal reasons -- he's my brother," Ripken said. "And he's a very qualified player, no matter where he plays. Robbie is going to play every day, so he's not going to get much of a chance to play second, but it's great insurance to know you've got a player like that in case I go down, or Robbie goes down."
Would Cal be willing to surrender some of his playing time to get Bill in the lineup? "I'm very proprietary when it comes to my playing time," he said, grinning.
That's been the case for about 14 years now, and Ripken said he has no plans to end his consecutive-games streak. Barring injury, he'll build on his major-league record, and surpass the world record of Japan's Central League player Sachio Kinugasa (2,215 games).
"The fact that I broke the record," Ripken said, "doesn't mean that I'll change my approach to the game."
Nor does it mean the fans will change their approach to Ripken, whose only hope for distracting autograph seekers may be the pennant race he covets for the Orioles.