Even Cal Ripken couldn't believe it. He was actually being congratulated on his speed and hook slide into second base yesterday on hit No. 2,992 of his storybook career, a double that helped set up the only Opening Day run for the Orioles in a 4-1 loss to Cleveland.
"It's amazing," Ripken said of the slide for a leadoff double in the second inning. "I've been around a long time and talked about a lot of things, but I can't ever remember being praised for a hook slide. It was a good slide but something that should be a routine part of the game."
Orioles pitcher Pat Rapp said he went up to the 39-year-old third baseman in the "lunch line and congratulated him" about the fadeaway slide that beat Kenny Lofton's throw into second.
While Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley and first base coach Eddie Murray tried to play down the fact that Ripken had made an Opening Day statement about how well his back was coming off surgery, no one in the crowd of 46,902 seemed to take the dash to second base and bold slide for granted.
The fans appeared to let out a collective sigh of relief and then cheered the man who is known more for The Streak (2,632 straight games), 402 home runs and a march toward the cherished 3,000-hit mark.
"As long as Cal is feeling good, it's a good sign for us," said left fielder B. J. Surhoff. "He's not going to feel good every day."
But Ripken didn't want to think about the days of possible pain.
He did enjoy a pain-free opener and life was pretty good except for the loss. His son, Ryan, climbed up on a chair in front of him during a post-game interview and waited patiently for his dad to pitch to him and a friend.
"The only thing I have to do right now is pitch to my son," Ripken said. "All I need to do is find the little bat that is around here somewhere."
Ripken reached out and patted his son's blond hair, but there were a still a few questions to answer before he could give his son the 15 minutes he had promised.
"The hit was a lot of luck," said Ripken, who has five more home games to reach 3,000 before the Orioles head out on a six-game road trip. "It was a jam job, the ball fell in the right spot, and I was fortunate to make it to second. I was facing a guy throwing 98 mph and it wasn't easy. The hardest part of my conditioning is to run, and I tried my best to go all out on the bases."
Those who have watched Ripken this spring said his dash to second was the hardest and the longest he has run since reporting to spring training. He had only one double in 63 at-bats during spring training, and that was on a ball that rolled to the wall.
"It was a combination of a good and bad spring training for me," said Ripken, who hit .143 in exhibition games. "I didn't get the hits and production I wanted, but I did accomplish what I wanted in my conditioning.
"I have to look at things a lot differently now. I didn't even have to think for 18 to 19 years about doing all the physical things it takes to play this game. Now I can't take anything I do for granted."
Ripken said he is feeling "a lot better" now than he did through most of spring training and "I hope to get even better" in the next few weeks.
The Iron Man was never tested defensively yesterday, with Sandy Alomar hitting the only ball to Ripken, a routine grounder in the sixth inning.
So that made the second-inning double that much more important for the Orioles' icon, who struck out looking in the third inning, grounded sharply to third in the sixth and bounced out to short in the eighth for a 1-for-4 afternoon.
Rapp, a newcomer to the team, said he is stunned by the attention Ripken receives every time he does anything, like simply walk out of the clubhouse to a bus.
"People are always talking about Cal," Rapp said. "They're either yelling at him or whispering about him. I've never been around a player who gets so much adulation.
"I have all these friends asking me if I can get Cal to sign this or sign that, and I haven't even begun to approach him. I don't know if I will. I hate to bother people. I've heard so much about how he plays hard that I wasn't surprised that he made that run to second where he never hesitated or slowed up."
When Ripken was told of Rapp's comments, the third baseman said, "It never ceases to amaze me how fans think about me. I don't hardly know how to talk about all that stuff."