VIERA, Fla. -- Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken is not, by nature, an outwardly emotional guy, but the sight of his father's No. 7 emblazoned on the sleeves of his teammates clearly touched his heart.
Ripken rejoined the club on Wednesday -- the day after Cal Ripken Sr. was laid to rest in Aberdeen -- and immediately donned the uniform that has been part of his family's professional life for more than four decades. He played in the Orioles' final two exhibition games in Florida and hit his first home run of the spring in yesterday's 2-0 win over the Florida Marlins at Space Coast Stadium.
The sleeve patch is the traditional tribute to a fallen teammate, but to Cal Jr., it meant a little more.
"I got an emotional zing," Ripken said. "It takes you back. It's a very nice tribute a nice honor. I understand the significance and symbolism of that far greater than somebody else might. I understand how important it was for him to put on that uniform and be part of baseball.
"It's one of those things you see that hits you emotionally. It's a very nice tribute."
In a way, so was Ripken's quick return after the funeral. He could have remained at home until the Orioles returned to Baltimore on Saturday, but he just wasn't brought up that way.
This is the guy who played in a major-league record 2,632 consecutive games and gave much of the credit to the former minor-league catcher who taught him his work habits.
"I've always felt a deep sense of responsibility as far as baseball is concerned," Ripken said. "That obviously comes from my dad. But my place last week was definitely at home."
Ripken had been away from the team eight days, the first time he had been separated from the club for any significant length of time during his professional career. He returned the day after delivering an emotional eulogy at the funeral service at Grace United Methodist Church in Aberdeen.
"In one sense, I'm a little lost," he said. "I'm a little bit in a fog. I assume that every day that will change a little in the right direction. It's a big void in my life I'm going to have to fill. He meant a lot to me personally as a father and a lot to me professionally because of baseball. He's going to be missed by everyone, but I'm going to miss him a great deal."
Ripken was eager to get right back into a baseball routine, so manager Ray Miller immediately inserted him into the lineup Wednesday night for the first of back-to-back games against the Marlins.
"I felt the time was right to come back and resume my baseball life," Ripken said. "It's not easy. It's not easy for anyone, but I wanted to get back into a routine. It felt very strange. I hadn't been away from baseball in spring training for a long time. It felt like I was back to square one. You don't think it should be a problem, but it felt like I was away a long time."
No doubt, Ripken Sr. would have endorsed the timely return. He taught his kids to show up for work on time and make no excuses. The apple didn't fall very far from the tree.
"I really haven't sat down and thought of it that way, but I suppose he would have said, 'What's all the fuss?' " Ripken said. "I really was examining my own life and my own sense of responsibility about where I should be. I know where my place was."
He appeared to be a little rusty during a 1-for-3 performance in Wednesday night's game and struck out looking in his first two at-bats yesterday, but he hit a drive off former Orioles pitcher Archie Corbin in the seventh inning that glanced off the glove of outfielder Ryan Jackson and cleared the left-field fence to break a scoreless tie.
"That felt especially good," Ripken said. "I got a hit yesterday and got a pop today. That makes you feel like you're moving in the right direction."
Ripken has been feeling the weight of his father's illness for months. Ripken Sr. was diagnosed with cancer last October, and his son has known throughout spring training that the situation was grave. He was grateful that he got home in time to say an affectionate goodbye.
"Just on a broader level," Ripken said. "This is real life. These things happen. It happens to everyone at some point in their lives, but the support we have gotten from family and friends -- all over baseball -- has been pretty overwhelming. It's been pretty great."
Pub Date: 4/02/99