CLEVELAND - For Cal Ripken, the moment was marked by a two-hop ground ball that skipped over second base on his first swing since June 27.
For Mike Hargrove, it came earlier when he walked to a once-foreign dugout, applause ringing from fans he once thought he would never leave.
To those who believe this season barren of meaning to the Orioles, last night at Jacobs Field represented a larger truth. A 5-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians could not overshadow moments once unthinkable. Hargrove, who steered the Indians to five consecutive postseason appearances, returned as a visiting manager before a crowd of 42,647; Ripken, his team's leading presence for two decades, appeared as a player with a future uncertain beyond this month.
Ripken carried out the first "baby steps" of a four-week "spring training" by going 1-for-3 in his return from two months on the disabled list due to nerve irritation in his lower back.
Serving as designated hitter, Ripken put the ball in play on all three swings, his most dramatic a seventh-inning drive that pushed Wil Cordero to the base of the left-center-field wall. Ripken saw only five pitches. It was enough.
"It was eerie. It felt like I stepped right back into hitting, like I hadn't missed two months. I couldn't be more pleased about that," said Ripken. "It's a strange sensation not to have a competitive at-bat for two months."
Ripken described himself as "very pleasantly surprised" with the experience. During the game he retreated to the indoor hitting cage six times to stay loose and sometimes ran the steps from the dugout to the clubhouse to maintain a sweat. Hargrove intended to allow Ripken only two-at bats but gave him a third based on early feedback. Had the game reached Ripken a fourth time, Hargrove would have pinch hit Eugene Kingsale for Ripken.
"After three, I was almost begging for four," Ripken said. "You get a little giddy. You've had three at-bats and felt good. But it is the first day. You want to give yourself every chance to play the rest of the month."
"I thought Cal swung the bat well," said Hargrove. "I think we'll know more about how he came through it [today]. But I thought he swung the bat well."
Ripken almost found himself tested immediately.
After singling in his first at-bat against Indians starter Chuck Finley, Ripken broke quickly on Brook Fordyce's drive to right fielder Manny Ramirez.
"I was on first base and Brook hit a line drive. I thought it was going to get over Manny's head, and for a moment I had a scare I'd have to score on a double. But when you play the game, you've got to play the game. If that ball had gone over his head, I would have tried to score, no matter what the consequences were," Ripken said.
Ramirez saved Ripken from sliding by making the catch.
Wrapped within Ripken's and Hargrove's powerful moments, starting pitcher Sidney Ponson endured another rough appearance at a place that has tormented him during his three-year career.
Ponson received a second-inning triple play and a double play that cut short a fourth-inning rally but couldn't hold off the fastball-craving Indians.
Leadoff hitters nagged at Ponson early as Kenny Lofton led off the first inning with a double, stole third and scored on a groundout. Jim Thome's leadoff walk in the fourth inning snowballed into a 2-0 lead on Cordero's one-out single. The Indians jacked their lead to 4-1 in the fifth inning on Thome's two-out, two-strike, two-run single. Ponson (7-10) left in the middle of a one-run seventh inning after allowing 10 hits among 15 base runners.
Ponson fell to 0-3 with a 9.93 ERA in five career starts at Jacobs Field. He has surrendered 34 hits in 22 2/3 innings lifetime there. The loss left Ponson with only one road win since April.
"Something will eventually click against these guys," said Ponson. "I must be 0-20 against them."
The Orioles' losses weren't limited to the game. Shortstop Melvin Mora left after 7 1/2 innings with a strained left hamstring and was listed as day-to-day.
Ripken had pointed toward his return ever since the All-Star break when he declared he could have played immediately "if it was the seventh game of the World Series." Several times Ripken modified his return date, only to acknowledge each as overly optimistic. His absence included 59 games; his 40th birthday; a dramatic makeover of the team that included the emotional trade of his good friend B. J. Surhoff; and the loss of Scott Erickson to elbow surgery.
Ripken's return to third base is part of a gradual process that has yet to see him slide or dive.
"I'm chomping at the bit to do everything," he said. "But at the same time, it makes sense to separate the game into offense and defense. It's good to ease into a few games as DH and evaluate where you are."
Cautious about returning prematurely, Ripken resumed daily batting practice two weeks ago under the supervision of hitting coach Terry Crowley. Yesterday, he took about 30 minutes of early hitting with Crowley, took his regularly scheduled swings during team batting practice, then again retreated with Crowley for another 15 minutes in the indoor cages.
"That's a good sign," said Crowley, citing Ripken's return to his complete regimen that existed prior to June's injury.
Few, however, believe Ripken is pain-free despite the gusto that has accompanied his rehabilitation. He suffered minor back spasms a little more than two weeks ago and had to slow his return. On Wednesday, he was fit enough to put himself through a rapid-fire defensive drill with infield coach Sam Perlozzo. Only Ripken knows when the drill takes him back to his third base position.