One spark can start a fire, so why can't one bumptious rookie, who slides head first to beat out his bunts, ignite a long winning streak?

Nobody out in East Oshkosh, who occasionally glances at a Baltimore box score along with breakfast, is going to believe that Bill Ripken has much to do with nine straight Orioles wins. Few casual fans will find it reasonable to credit a .286 hitter, who possesses only one big league home run, with a central role in the sudden revival of spirit in a fretful and depressed franchise.

Just for a while, however, let's pretend it's true. Let's make believe that, for as long it lasts, we're watching "The Kid From Tomkinsville" -- except this time it's "The Kid Brother From Aberdeen."

Sometimes we get so blase', saying, "Fairy tales don't happen," that we miss the whole show when one appears before us. After all, no father had ever managed two of his sons in the majors in 118 years. But Cal Ripken Sr. gets to write down "B. Ripken" and "C. Ripken" on his lineup card every day, then watch them play middle-infield braintrust like a couple of Gashouse Gangers. So why not go the whole fantasy hog?

The Orioles lost Bill Ripken's first game. But they haven't lost since. In almost every game, he's contributed something symbolic or vital. Often it's a walk or a humble single that happens to be in the middle of a rally; he's only gotten on base 16 times, yet he has 13 runs produced in 10 games. Sometimes, however, he opens eyes with a hit with the bases loaded or a surprise bunt or a steal when a pitcher's caught napping -- falsely secure in the notion that no Ripken can run worth snowshoes.

After a half-season at Rochester with zero home runs, Bill Ripken missed a homer by a foot in his first road game. Too bad, Shrimpken, that was probably your best bolt for this season. So, 48 hours later, the 22-year-old with the chihuahua yap and the terrier walk crushed a game-deciding three-run homer 15 rows deep in the Royals Stadium bleachers in Kansas City. Waaaay back.

When the vets, led by Eddie Murray, tried to give him the silent treatment, Ripken refused to accept it. Instead, he grinned in their faces, picked up their limp hands and high-fived them anyway. In a few seconds, the dugout was pounding his back, accepting him. And, more important, embracing his attitude.

Ironically, Bill has done what the two Cals couldn't. Both are quiet by nature. The rookie manager father could not very well cheer for himself. And the star son found it out of character to become a holler guy once daddy became the boss. But Bill couldn't care less. He hasn't got his father's dignity or his brother's gifts. He just bites a leg, then holds on until reinforcements arrive. He knows what was said when he arrived: he either shouldn't be on the team at all or he wouldn't stay there long. So, here's spit in your eye.

Ever since the least-talented Ripken showed the way, the other Orioles youngsters have come out of their shells. Maybe they were ready, anyway, or just overdue. But it's a fact that Eric Bell has put his two best games of the season back-to-back. And John Habyan retired the last 19 men he faced in a long relief victory. And Ken Gerhart, given another chance to start in center because of Fred Lynn's latest injury, hit two homers in one game.

This is a perfectly proper time for Baltimore partisans -- so deflated by the team's 14-42 finish in '86 and its 31-50 start in '87 -- to rediscover some enthusiasm. It's also a fine time not to repeat the mistakes of the past and go overboard. Excess expectations have been strangling this team for three years.

Without Don Aase, Baltimore still has only half of a bullpen stopper; Tom Niedenfuer may handle the ninth inning passably, but finds the eighth and ninth too much. Also, despite encouraging signs from their soul-search visits to Rochester, the mystery trio of Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor and Ken Dixon still has enormous doubts to erase. At least this time they should face less pressure. Mike Boddicker, Dave Schmidt and Bell give the team three temporarily effective starters; so, Flanagan and McGregor now merely have to follow, not lead. Hopefully, Dixon will feel Jeff Ballard behind him in AAA and face the fact that he's about a nickel shy of the price of a plane ticket out of town.

For the Baltimore franchise, this winning streak has come at an enormously important time. Once a team loses its hardcore fans, attendance can slide for years. If the Orioles had continued the disgraceful 45-92 play that began early last August, paying customers would've been right to withdraw their support.

Now, it's possible to look at the future without a shudder. Maybe Bill Ripken will be a keeper. Pete Stanicek and Alan Worthington still look like infielders for the '90s. Ballard will get more chances. Bell might prove to be a fixture and Habyan at least a long-relief or spot-starting helper. The outfield of Larry Sheets, Mike Young and Gerhart can hit enough to offset its below-average defense.

Will the senior Ripken ever have a more severe test than he has this year? And hasn't he survived it as strongly as any new coach since Joe Gibbs began his Washington Redskins reign 0-5? All players wonder what the skipper will do if they -- for instance -- win only five games in a month. Now the Orioles know.

The hardest test for the Orioles (and their fans and front office) over the final 10 weeks will be to blend the enthusiasm of the last fortnight with the patience learned over the previous bitter 11 months. Rookies stop hitting. Winning streaks end. Adrenaline only lasts so long. When the Orioles cool off again, they must not lose heart utterly as they have in the past. It's the nature of the game (and particularly the habit of this manic team) to go from wonderful one month to atrocious the next.

Bill Ripken has helped the Orioles get back in touch with how much they care and how well they can play. When the July wildfire he's helped ignite is just a memory, perhaps the Orioles can finally settle down, calmly and confidently, to the long process of building a determined and cohesive team once again. That may take another year or two. But it can begin -- in fact, may already have begun -- in just a couple of weeks.