Standing by the batting cage, the rookie asks the veteran nonchalantly, "This guy we're facing tonight, what's he got?"

"You mean Al Williams?" says Baltimore's Rich Dauer, his jaw slack as though it were inconceivable that this 21-year-old--Cal Ripken Jr.--did not know what to expect from the Minnesota right-hander.

"He's got a great fast ball that breaks in or out and you never know which. And his curve," says Dauer, giving an exaggerated imitation of a big, overhand curve ball, "jeez, it just falls off the table."

As Dauer jumps in the cage, Ripken mutters, "Dauer does that to me every night, no matter who's pitching. He's got me zero for four before the game starts."

"Kid, Williams is tough," says Dauer, "so, you'll just have to watch me. I'll probably take him deep two or three times."

Neither smiles; the major-league inside jokes are deadpan.

On the surface, Ripken is simply playing a game when he asks his mates about American League pitchers. Underneath, however, that arduous learning process is Ripken's main project for '82. Every pitch is part of his education.

All first-year players face the same process: learning the league as it learns you. "You're going to face the same pitchers for years," says Ripken, "so you'd better learn them, then adjust, before they do it to you."

Few young players have an introduction as intense as Ripken's.

Not only was he a highly touted prospect and the son of an Oriole coach, but he inherited third base this spring without any competition. It was a bonanza of a fair chance. But it was also a burden. If he flopped, there was no place to hide.

After an auspicious first-at-bat homer on opening day, followed by a single and double, Ripken went into suspended animation--one for 30, his average dropping to .117.

Every pitcher and umpire was new. Ripken became tentative, yet anxious. Pitchers, sensing a victim, attacked. Always, he seemed behind the count. In AAA, where he was feared, he'd gotten a walk every other game; after a full month in the bigs, he had just one walk.

Partly because he wanted to please homer-hungry Manager Earl Weaver, Ripken tried to look for inside pitches to pull for power. That helped begin his slide into bad habits as he opened his front shoulder and began uppercutting.

Finally, three weeks ago, Ripken says, "I was desperate. I was listening to everybody and trying everything." The low point came when, try as he might, he couldn't even get a hit off his father. "I could always hit him," laughs Ripken. "He can throw the ball a long way to me."

Then, just at his nadir, the pieces started to form a picture. The pitchers he'd seen and studied once began to reappear on a western road trip. Simultaneously, Ripken decided to keep his swing problems in the family.

"I was listening to everybody except my dad," he says. "In the minors, we paid for a lot of long-distance calls. I'd tell him I was hitting weak grounders to short and, without even seeing me, he'd say something that worked.

"He always says, 'Too soon old and too late smart.' Well, it's not too late for me."

The Ripkens retreated to basics: get off the plate, stride into the ball, keep your shoulder in, drive the ball to all fields, swing level rather than up. That also meant ignoring Weaver's advice to crowd the plate and try to pull.

"My father and I got us going. . . I mean, got me going," says Ripken.

With his swing repaired, Ripken's brainwork kicked in. "The first time I saw (Oakland's) Mike Norris, he gave me fits with screwballs. The next time, I hit a homer on a screwball. Same with (California's) Angel Moreno. First time in Baltimore, he jammed me with a fast ball and broke my bat. I knew he'd come back with it and I hit a homer off him in Anaheim.

"California's (Ken) Forsch and (Steve) Renko were tough at first, but, the second time, I got my hits off them. It's one thing for somebody to say, 'Tom Underwood is sneaky fast and has a sharp hook,' but saying it and seeing it are two different things.

"I think my strength is that I can hit all four (basic) pitches in any part of the strike zone," says Ripken. "I don't really have a hole, if I'm looking for that pitch. It helps me a lot to make a good educated guess."

Also, Ripken is learning how to vary the book on himself. Every game, he looks for a pitch to scald to right field. "They were playing me away and pitching me away. You have to prove you can go to right, or you'll never see a pitch to pull."

Now, it's Ripken who's playing the mind games, not the other way round.

Last week against the Twins, "I got four of my five hits on breaking balls--two off Williams' sliders and two off (Pete) Redfern's curves. Next time, they'll try something different, probably fast balls in. But, I'll change first. I'll be waiting."

In his last 13 games, Ripken is 18 for 49 (.367), raising his average from .132 to a respectable-for-a-rookie .242.

"When we come into a town, I wish they'd put it in big bold letters that I'm hitting well. That way the pitchers are more careful; you get to see more pitches and learn more," says Ripken. "But after I've been around the league and I know who's pitching, I'd rather sneak into town."

It will take a season, not a spring, for Ripken to feel comfortable. He will, however, have a special advantage--that crusty fellow who pitches batting practice. "As long as I'm in this game," says Cal Ripken Sr., "I'll continue to try to put 40-year-old heads on 20-year-old bodies."

Perhaps that's why young Ripken looks older all the time.