Silver-haired Earl Weaver took his sneaky lead off third base, his tiny legs inching ever farther down the base path toward home.

Eddie Murray spotted the diminutive Baltimore manager first. "How'd he get on base?" cackled the Oriole first baseman. "Must've got in a crouch and drawn a walk."

"Yeah, 110 of 'em every year," snapped Weaver, a three-time MVP in the minors.

As the southpaw on the mound threw, the runner on first tried to steal second. The moment catcher Rick Dempsey cocked his arm to throw to second, Weaver saw his chance and broke -- trying to steal home at the age of 50.

Dempsey faked to second, then pegged to third, trapping The Certified Genius in a hotbox. "Finally," shouted Weaver, being tagged out. "I'm proud of you."

"It only took me five years," muttered Dempsey, "but I got that play right."

"Okay, let's go concentrate," rasped Weaver, clapping his hands as the next runners in line went to first and third base so the Orioles could continue working on what they call The Famed Play. "We don't wanna give nothin' away."

This was the last day the Orioles could give somethin' away and have it mean absolutely nothin' to nobody. This was the last day for Weaver, during an intrasquad game, to look at a huge shaven-headed umpire and say, "I think I'll send Stoddard out to argue with him."

On Thursday, their exhibition season opens. To most teams that means little. But to the Orioles it has added flavor this spring because a 6-foot-4, 200-pound chunk of their future will be on display: third baseman Cal Ripken Jr.

Teams that win 100 games are supposed to scoff at rookies, especially 20-year-olds who have never played above Class AA. The Orioles are not laughing at the son of third-base coach "Hold 'em, Cal" Ripken.

"I'm hard on young players. I want 'em to 'show me," said Terry Crowley, called the King of Swing. "But this kid really looks like he can play, like he's destined."

"Looks like Tony Perez," said John Lowenstein, who chased down three Ripken frozen-rope hits off front-line Bird pitchers in the first two squad games here. "He's very determined, in a quiet way. Because of his father, who knows just as much baseball as Earl, he can already play between the ears."

"Ripken's the best all-around athlete in camp," said Jim Palmer. "I know, because I used to be."

Amid the idle drills here, eyes keep turning to Ripken. Mostly, the little things that have no name mark Ripken; in a hundred gestures, he looks like a pro who has been in the majors for years. Of course, he has.

That's the Ripken problem. He looks so ready. And he is such an apparently perfect discription of what the Orioles need. Bird officials agree he has good enough hands to play a decent shortstop. He rips so hard there is no way he won't hit some home runs. The gut reaction of Oriole fans is to scream, "Bring the kid up! He's the last piece in the puzzle."

After all, Kiko Garcia hit .199 last year and has a chronic bad back. Mark Belanger, 36, could take on the role of ideal defensive replacement. In addition, Ripken could spell Doung DeCinces at third base do DeCinces could rest his aching back.

What a perfect deal all around. Who's be hurt? Floyd Rayford? Lenn Sakata?

Fortunately for Ripken, the Orioles know who might really be hurt; Ripken.

That's why, unless he hits .600 here and bevies of Birds get injured, he will play at least half, more probably all, of 1981 at Rochester. The O's think Ripken is too good to risk, even if it means chiseling at their championship chances.

If any situation illustrates the Oriole difference, it is this one. Weaver knows you don't rush a tomato plant and you don't hurry an honest prospect. The more you value a young player, the more aduously you work to put him in situations were he can only succeed.

For instance, DeCines, whom the know-nothing world thinks is being challenged for a job, has taken Ripken under his arm.

"The first day, I told him, 'Hey, don't worry about anything. We're old friends,'" said DeCinces. "He feels more awkward than I do aobut it.I know I have nothing to worry about. This organization doesn't disrupt success. They don't jerk people around and take their jobs away. Consistency breeds consistency. There's an obligation on the party of the guy who holds the job to be decent to the player coming up. Brooks (Robinson) did it with me. Look at all the grief I had to go through replacing him. But none of it came from Brooks."

Ripken's father was DeCines' minor league manager for three years. Two players have been nicknamed "Ripken's son": DeCines and Murray.

"Doug has only himself to blame. He made Cal a third baseman," kids Ripken Sr. "When Cal was a kid down in Asheville and Rochester, I'd shoo him to the outfield, but DeCinces would call him into the infield to hit him grounders."

Once, a crazy kid shooting a rifle from a hill began firing into the Asheville ball park. The bullet kicked up grass between DeCinces and Ripken, then 11. "I picked him up and dove into the dugout with him," DeCinces recalls.

"When people ask me about playing third base," said Ripken Jr., "it seems strange. When I was a kid, it was always DeCinces who paid attention to me."

"Let's let the kid get his first big league at bat before we start droolin' over him, okay?" muttered Weaver. "If he goes four for four against the Yankees up in Lauderdale, or hits one over the center field wall here against the Reds -- the kind of stuff Murray did one spring -- then you can start talkin'. But, fact is, we're in a situation now where we can have our cake and eat it, too."

In other words, Ripken, third in MVP voting in the Puerto Rican winter league, is both an insurance policy against injuries to either Garcia or DeCinces and the best sort of prod to both of them.

"Cal having a good year at Rochester might help us win 105 games up here," Ray Miller, the pitching coach said with a laugh. "You don't think the guys up here know what's goin' on down there?"

The coming of Ripken Jr. has been gradual, an assumed fact for years.

"Neither of us seems to think much about it," the father said. "I remember the day of the draft in '78, I was at the breakfast table and it suddenly hit me that one of the people who was being drafted, maybe by my team, was my own son. As a ballplayer, I always just thought of him as 'another propsect.' I called my wife and said, 'Vi, guess what happens today.'

"She said, 'Oh, so you finally figured it out.'"

The Ripkens may not know it, but the days of keeping Little Rip a comfortable Baltimore secret are quickly coming to an end.