The son is looked on as the father's just reward.

When Cal Ripken Jr. is mentioned in the Baltimore Orioles' spring training camp here, it is with an affection that few 21-year-old rookies ever will feel.

Partly, it's because many have known Little Rip since he was a child.

Second baseman Rich Dauer recalls looking behind him during batting practice in Asheville, N.C., years ago and seeing a 13-year-old catcher snagging fast balls as though he were a big league veteran.

Ex-Oriole Doug DeCinces, who was traded to California for Dan Ford in January, in large part to make room for Ripken in the lineup, was always crazy about the kid who was destined to replace him. "I'm just playing between legends (i.e., Brooks Robinson and Ripken)," DeCinces used to say. Once a crazy kid was firing a rifle from a hill down at the Asheville diamond and DeCinces scooped up Little Rip and dove into the dugout with him.

One Oriole, Jim Palmer, can even remember Little Rip as a 3-year-old playing at the ballpark back at Class A Aberdeen in 1964.

In fact, most Orioles remember the day Ripken Jr. took batting practice at Memorial Stadium as a high school senior in 1978 before the Orioles signed him. The 6-foot-4 youngster beat the left field bleachers to death with a dead-pull stroke that obviously had been built with just this park in mind from a very early age. The vets buzzed that day as though they'd seen the future and it was Cooperstown.

Mostly, the universal acceptance of Ripken has to do with his father, Cal Ripken Sr., the team's third base coach for the past six seasons.

It's not a misnomer that the wiry 5-foot-11, 170-pound father is called Big Rip while his 205-pound slugger son is Little Rip. It's a question of respect.

The older Ripken got his growth, what there was of it, late, and didn't play his first pro game until he was older than his son is now. After six seasons in the bushes, batting .253 as a catcher and never getting higher than AA, he retired at age 27. He'd already been a playing manager since he was 25.

In his 25 years in baseball, all in the Oriole organization, this is where Big Rip (now 47, though he looks much older) has served time as player or manager: Phoenix, Wilson, Pensacola, Amarillo, Appleton, Little Rock, Leesburg (Fla.), Rochester, Aberdeen (S.D.), Keenewick, Richland, Pasco (Wash.), Miami, Elmira, Dallas-Fort-Worth and Asheville.

Little Rip is his reward for all the batting practice he has pitched, all the towering foul pops he has fungoed, all the pitchers he has warmed up, all the buses he has ridden while his wife (Vi) of 25 years and four children were left behind.

Of course, Cal Ripken Sr. won't admit all this. He's a strong, silent man who would make nails seem soft.

Asked if he has talked to his son about the great opportunities of '82, he says, "Hell, no, I don't have to talk to him about that. When he was in Bluefield and Miami and Charlotte and Rochester and Puerto Rico, I wasn't there then. I've never been able to watch him at any level, even Little League. Why should I start talkin' at him now? He's got his job. I've got my job."

Big Cal is acutely aware of how much of his time has been funneled to his surrogate sons at the expense of his real ones.

"No, I haven't talked to him yet," said the father, nearly two days after his son had reported to camp here. "He's got his friends. All of our (baseball) life has been on a professional level. The father-son thing is overplayed. Hell, I managed Eddie Murray and Rich Dauer and Doug DeCinces and Bobby Litchfield in the minors. I was a father to all of them."

Most fathers might fawn over a successful son, who, just a month ago, was named MVP of the Puerto Rican winter league. Not Ripken.

"It's not what he'll do this year, but what he'll do over the next 15 years," says the father. "You measure a player by his whole career, what he learns, what he does under pressure. Am I proud of him? Well, sure, I'm proud of him as my son. But, as a ballplayer, ask in 15 years."

The truth is, the Orioles just can't hold Junior back any more. He's torn up every league there is. His potential is so great that his development must be allowed to follow a completely natural course.

In all this, Manager Earl Weaver takes an entirely distanced approach, wary because the father is one of his oldest friends and because he has always been a Little Rip booster.

"The only important thing," says Weaver gruffly, "is to look at the book at the end of the season and see if he's hit 25 home runs rather than five, or has 86 RBI rather than 26."

"This is like a new life, a new challenge, a big opportunity that I'm not going to pass up," says young Ripken, refreshed after a month's vacation after winter ball where he hit .314 with 49 RBI in 60 games.

"My last two years, I've started out really hot and continued right through. I count on myself to get off to a good start. It's a new league, just like any other step, from Double A to Triple A, just a little bit tougher."

A winter of mulling has muted the memory of his Dauer-like failures of last season when Ripken went five for 39.

"When I came up, I was really swinging well. If I was put right in the lineup, from that point on, I think I would have done all right. But I sat, and my timing was a little off. And you can't experiment from the bench.

"Sitting and watching I got bored. I was really upset. I said, 'Why couldn't I stay at Rochester, get in the playoffs and at least help the team win. At least play every day.' But then I thought, 'I'm up here and I'm getting my feet wet.' I got to see everything, so this year I don't have as many question marks."