- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. As members of the Baltimore Orioles enter the clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium for the first time this spring training, it hasn't been uncommon that someone glances at the locker in the front left corner.

Perhaps they half expect to see him standing there, prying open a box of bats or scribbling his name on a ball.

And then the realization sets in that the number atop the locker, for the first time in 21 years, is not 8 but 18 and that Cal Ripken is no longer a member of this team.

"Yesterday I walked in, looked over and [Jeff] Conine was sitting in it. I did kind of a double take," said second-year player Jay Gibbons. "It was like, 'Lucky you.' I did notice it's a little different here, not quite as hectic, which is OK. But we're definitely going to miss him."

The Orioles' first post-Ripken spring training has been going strong for seven days now, but yesterday marked the first full team workout, and thus the first full clubhouse, of a new era in team history. The Orioles have not had a spring training without Ripken since 1980, so long ago that many of the franchise's players have never known this team without him.

"It really is different," said shortstop Mike Bordick, a teammate of Ripken's for most of the last five seasons. "I don't know how exactly to describe it except that there's such an aura around him. When he stepped into the clubhouse, you realized that this was Orioles baseball and how important he was to it."

The man who now occupies the famed corner locker first baseman/outfielder Conine concedes this spring has a different feel to it.

"When you play with him, you realize the impact he had not only on this team but also on Baltimore and all of baseball," said Conine, the team's MVP in 2001. "It's going to be weird not having him here."

It may be weird this spring without Ripken, but it also will be far less chaotic around the training complex. Last season the Iron Man's every move was followed by the media, by the fans, by a Major League Baseball film crew that produced a year-long documentary of his farewell tour.

Particularly during the final months of the season, once the Orioles were well out of the pennant chase and the team was beset with injuries, the entire focus seemed to be on one player. The experience, while memorable, did detract from everything else taking place on the field.

"I enjoyed Cal being on my ballclub, I really did," Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove said. "But at times it was a distraction for the ballclub, although they never said that. I'm looking forward to getting on with the business of rebuilding this team. I wouldn't trade anything in the world for my experience with Cal. But it's time for us to move on, and I think that's why I haven't thought as much about [his absence] as people would think."

Ripken's retirement, along with Brady Anderson's release after 14 seasons, represented the final roster moves in the Orioles' transition from a veteran-laden, high-salary team to the youthful bunch now in place.

"You've got to move on," Conine said. "You've got to get another identity going with this team and move in the right direction toward going to the World Series again. Hopefully, it's just the next chapter."

No player embodies the new-look Orioles more than the man who takes over for Ripken at third base, 28-year-old Tony Batista, who was acquired last June from the Toronto Blue Jays and made 81 starts (29 at third base) with Baltimore. He now has the job permanently.

"When I came to this team, everybody said I was going to replace Cal Ripken," said Batista, who had 25 homers, 87 RBI and a .238 average last year. "I'm happy to be on this team, but I don't think anybody's going to replace Cal on this team or in the game. I'm just going to be another player on this team, do my best and go forward."


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