This is baseball the way it was meant to be, far from million-dollar contracts and threatened strikes. This is early March and 70 degrees in Pompano Beach.

For the 1,300 fans, mostly kids and retirees, who've turned out to see the visiting Baltimore Orioles play the Texas Rangers on opening day in the Grapefruit League, the grass is green, the sky blue as the nearby Atlantic Ocean, and the air shimmers white, the way it seems to do only in Florida.

On the outfield fence the signs for Cookie's Garage and Tire Center and Balistreri Real Estate gleam fresh as beginnings. Even the players strolling around before the game, chatting, throwing a few balls, have that laid-back, nothing-much-at-stake-here look of spring training.

But for Steve Stone, the Oriole pitcher warming up on the mound, a lot -- some would say everything -- is at stake. Last year Stone won 25 games and lost only seven, making him the winningest pitcher in the major leagues in 1980. For that he won pitching's top prize, the Cy Young Award; was named the American League's starter in the All-Star game, in which he pitched three perfect innings; and set a team record for the most wins in a single season.

That team record alone is quite a feat when you consider that 22 times in the last 13 years an Oriole pitcher has won 20 games. Eight of those 20-game seasons belong to Jim Palmer. In addition to Stone and three-time Cy Young winner Palmer, Baltimore's other two starting pitchers last season were 1979 Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor, who won 20 games last year.

Last September, as the team narrowed the gap between themselves and the division-leading New York Yankees, Orioles' manager Earl Weaver, skipper of the team with probably the best starting rotation in professional baseball, said of Stone: "We wouldn't be anywhere now without Steve."

Behind that statement is more than just praise of an outstanding performance. Behind that statement is the truth that pitching is 80 percent of baseball. Without it, not even a team that has a Reggie Jackson or a George Brett can win a pennant. To be the one on whom so much depends, the single individual who will be credited with winning or losing the game when the record is written, is a pressure that no other player in team sports has to bear.

But what made baseball fans gape in wonder was not so much that any pitcher won 25 games, but that Steve Stone did. This was a man whose career record at the beginning of 1980 season was 78-79. After nine years in the majors hardly anyone remembered his name because there wasn't much to remember about a journeyman .500 right-hander who bounced from club to club, from the Giants to the White Sox to the Cubs and back to the White Sox, before being signed as a free agent by the Orioles for the 1979 season, in which he was 11-7.

That Weaver picked him to start the first exhibition game of this season is, Stone says, "a tribute to the season I had last year." But that was last year. This year, he says, "I'm going to win 30 games and pitch a no-hitter. That means I'll win the Cy Young again. Maybe another time or two and then it will be Scotty's turn."

If pitching is 80 percent of baseball, then confidence is 80 percent of pitching.

Steve Stone has a lot to be confident about. He is handsome and he is rich, though at $200,000 per year perhaps not rich by the standards of professional athletes. He is also smart. Quick with the quips, he stands out in the baseball crowd as more unusual, more interesting than most. His poems have been published in several newspapers. He consults a psychic regularly. A gourmet and wine connoisseur, he has just opened an elegant and ambitious restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz. Divorced in 1972 after a two-year marriage to his college sweetheart, he also has a reputation as a connoisseur of women. An acknowledged loner, he spends his free time reading and doesn't like the singles' bar scene. Asked how, with a ball player's peripatetic life, he meets women, he throws out a flippant one-liner like a 90 mph fast ball: "I always thought advertising was the best way!" And now he is sitting on top of the pitcher's mound.

But will he stay there? It is statistically more probable that Stone will win fewer than 25 games in 1981. He will be 34 years old in July and he has probably come to success to late to make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But if he is to be remembered at all in the annals of the game, if he is to be anything but a flash-on-the-mound, he has to have a winning year -- again. Maybe not a bravura 30 games, but 20 certainly. And he knows it. You don't go the distance for 10 years and not know it. That is why, even though this exhibition game may not count for anything on the Great Baseball ystat Sheet, it has to count toward keeping the momentum going and the confidence high. It has to count to a pitcher who, whether he will readily admit it or not, has something to prove, maybe most of all to himself.

"All my life, because of my size, people have been telling me what I couldn't do," says Stone, who is, the program says 5'10" 175 lbs., though he looks an inch or two shorter and several pounds slighter than that. "They said I was too small and not durable enough. First they said I'd never pitch in high school. Then they said I'd never pitch in college. Then they said okay, but you'll never pitch professionally. Then they said well, maybe you're pitching professionally but you'll never make it out of the minors. When I got to the majors, they said well, you may be in the majors but you'll never be good. Now those same people are saying I won't have a good year this year. That kind of thing is reiterated by people who've never achieved a great deal themselves. Half the people who went to see Ali fight went to see him lose, but he didn't lose, until right at the end, because he was the Secretariat of athletes. Well, I'm no Ali and no Secretariat, but I'm not going to lose either."

Fortunately for Stone, the history of baseball is in fact ripe with late-bloomers, frogs who is baseball middle age -- late 20s or early 30s -- suddenly became princes, who got the kiss of success that turned losers into winners who stayed that way. The legendary Early Wynn was 72-87 in eight years with the Washington Senators but went on to win 228 with the Indians and White Sox. Red Ruffing came to the Yankees from the Red Sox in 1930 with a 39-96 record; after 15 years in pinstripes he was 231-124, a record that got him into the Hall of Fame. A current Yankee, Tommy John, was 84-91 after nine seasons with the Indians and White Sox before being traded to L.A. at age 29; since then (as of this season), he's won 130 and lost 60.

And there are well over a dozen other examples of the phenomenon. Almost all of these frog princes had one of several things going for them: They were traded to a better team, they got a new pitching coach, they changed their attitude, they added a new pitch. All four of these factors helped transform Steve Stone.

Should Stone have another extraordinary year, he will have gained a measure of acceptance that he has not yet had, and he will have earned his place in memory. He will have proved that the fairy tale, with its dependence on magic and luck, was really a morality play all along, in which the hero is rewarded for hard work and determination and aided by the efforts of his friends.

To see Steve Stone on the mound is to see that he is not a natural athlete. He has none of the leonine grace of Palmer, nor the natural coordination of McGregor. All effort and will, Stone rears back and swings his arm behind him in a wide arc, cheeks puffed out and boyish face contorted into a grotesquely comic mask of concentration. Then suddenly the ball is out of the glove traveling toward the plate and Stone is standing stork-like on one leg, head and torso cracking forward as if there's no way they can stop until the pitcher lands face first in the dirt.

But he doesn't, and it's strike one to Ranger second baseman Bump Wills, bottom of the second, two outs.

Wind is always a factor in March in these little Florida parks and today the wind, must be stiff enough to drive in the fence 30 or 40 feet. The trick is to get the batter to pop up to center or hit to right field where the wind will knock the ball down, but in the first inning the Rangers keep getting away from Stone, hitting three line drives to left, including a single by first baseman Pat Putnam that scores fleet-footed Mickey Rivers. Actually, completing the first inning with only one run scored is a triumph for a pitcher whose earned-run average in first innings last year was 6.00.

In the second inning, Stone seems to get a little wiser. Larry Cox pops out to center, and Stone walks catcher Jim Sundberg, because Sundberg, batting an okay .273 last year, has a history of connecting with Stone's pitches. Another pop fly to center, this one from shortstop Mario Mendoza. Next comes Willis again.

This time Wills is ready. The count is 3-2. Like a confident pitcher, Stone lets go his best pitch, a curve ball. Crack, whoosh, Wills hits it hard, real hard. It's in the air, whizzing toward the fence, a goner. But no, there's that wind again. Oriole center fielder Al Bumbry gets in position, holds up his glove. He knows something we don't know. And, just at the right moment, like someone swatting a pesky bug, the wind slaps that certain homer straight down into Bumbry's glove to end the inning.

As usual in spring training, changes are made to allow everyone a chance to play as much as possible, and Stone, after two innings, makes way for reliever Dave Ford.

A respectable debut, a little touchy in the first inning but respectable, no serious damage to the confidence. "It felt great out there," Stone says, smiling, outside the clubhouse. "My arm feels better than it did this time last year. I've been running six miles a day, and I'm in better shape than I've ever been in my life."

So what about that Bump Wills fly? Any other day, any other place, without the wind, it would have been a home run. "Well, if the wind hadn't been blowing like that, I wouldn't have pitched him like that," Stone says, a little irritably.

Pressure. This year, everybody's watching. Fact is, Stone has never looked very good in spring training, and this year was no exception. Starting five games in Florida, he finished 1-3, pitching 22 innings. His earned-run average was a staggering 9.00. That's right, 9.00.

Maybe it's because he's a breaking-ball pitcher and it often takes a little longer for a breaking-ball pitcher to get in the groove. And in spring training this year, he was experimenting, trying not to rely so much on the curve ball but to improve his fast ball, slider and change-up. Or maybe it's just him, his way, some natural rhythm that makes him slow in beginnings -- first innings, spring training, the first month on the season.

April is always the cruelest month for Steve Stone. Even last year, his stellar year, Stone was 2-3 with a 4.74 earned-run average after losing to Minnesota on May 5. Then he won 23 of his final 27 decisions, including 14 consecutive wins from May 9 through July 26.

That's why last month's record tells little. On opening day in Baltimore, April 10, Stone beat the Kansas City Royals 5-3, pitching five innings and giving up eight hits. April 17 he pitched six innings against the Royals, again giving up eight hits; it was a no decision for Stone, but the Birds eventually won 3-2. His first loss came against the White Sox on April 24 in Chicago when the O's, having already lost the first game of a doubleheader 18-5, were beaten by the Sox 5-3. The second, again to the Sox (8-6), was a debacle. Stone pitched only 1 2/3 innings, gave up seven hits and five earned runs.

The team itself limps into spring, too. After beating Detroit last year on May 16, the Orioles were 14-18, in sixth place, five games out. Eleven games behind on July 14, they rallied to win 100 games, the second-best regular season record in baseball, and pulled within three games of the Yankees. That's why at the end of April Baltimore fans had not given up hope, despite the fact that the team was 5-8.

Those early games, though, in a tight pennant race can have a significant effect on the outcome. Spring training is different. In an exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves, Stone gave up seven runs in two innings, figured out that wind speed and direction were helping the batters hit his curve ball, changed his pitches and pitched three perfect innings.

"That's all I want to see from Steve Stone in spring training: thinking," says pitching coach Ray ("Rabbit") Miller. "That's all Earl Weaver wants to see."

What does Weaver, the acknowledged brilliant manager, a man who seems like a cross between a leprechaun and a snapping turtle, expect from Stone this year? "Same as always," snaps the Earl of Baltimore. "We always thought Steve was a potential 20-game winner -- we thought that when we got him."

Thinking. That is the Orioles' cardinal principle. For years the team's famous instruction manual has preached baseball's fundamentals, and those fundamentals -- bread and butter rules, such as never missing a cutoff man, avoiding the big inning -- are learned and learned and learned by every coach and every player in the entire system. Oriole pitchers are taught to think, to be "situational" pitchers, of which Palmer may be the all-time best; they are taught not to concentrate too much on strikeouts but to let the defense do part of the work. They are taught to be a team. And it has paid off: In the last 15 years the Orioles have won more games than any team in the majors, although their players tend to be less well known, less flashy and maybe even less naturally talented than many of their competitors.

Stone recognized that right away. "This team is not a heavyweight in the Liston fashion, but it's the middleweight that lasts, that goes the distance, that hangs in there, that keeps in a position to get the big break," he says.

If the relaxed joviality of an afternoon exhibition game in Florida is basebal the way baseball was meant to be, the fundamental-playing Orioles are a team the way a team was meant to be.

And in many ways Steve Stone is a quintessential Oriole -- the middleweight, the long-distance runner, the overachiever. "It's hard for me to quit. I just have enough stubbornness and pride to think I can turn it around," he says. "I've had ample opportunity to leave this game, but I would've left with the idea that I never reached my potential, so I stayed around. I figured that if I stayed healthy, it all come down to timing. I was at a point where the maturity was there, both chronologically and emotionally. So I decided to take a whole season to see if I could change my baseball life. And I did."

Indeed. When he first came to Baltimore, Stone says, he "felt like the fifth wheel on a Cadillac and you know where the fifth wheel goes -- in the trunk." Before, he had "tried to personally dominate the game." On a mediocre or poor team, the pitcher, the guy who's under the most pressure and whose performance is the most visible, just tries to survive. The only way to make sure he's going to stay around is to do everything himself. But the Cadillac didn't run that way.

Weaver, unhappy with the way Stone was looking in the first half of 1979, complained long and loud to both Stone and Miller. Stone kept telling Miller, "Get him off my back -- I'm doing the best I can." The pitching coach decided that manager and player needed to have it out. Miller arranged a meeting, a three-hour "talk" that became a shouting match but ended with the player and manager walking across the field arm in arm.

At about the same time something else happened that made an impression on Stone. Scott McGregor got a no-decision in a game in which he had been ahead (the relievers gave up a couple of runs, but the Orioles eventually won). "That's really tough," Stone said to him.

"It doesn't matter," McGregor answered. "We won."

That was when, Stone says, he realized that "these guys really mean it."

Stone was ready to make some changes. He was depending too exclusively on his best pitch, a curve ball, and his second-best, a fast ball, and he was taking too long between pitches. Shortstop Mark Belanger complained to Miller that "we're going to sleep out here in the infield," and Miller told Belanger to tell that to Stone himself. He did.

Miller worked on getting Stone to vary his pitches, change speeds, depend more on his defense and work faster. He has added the slider and the change-up to his repertoire of pitches. "Now," says Miller, "he's thinking more like a pitcher. He's thinking 'we' instead of 'I.'"

Now Stone has embraced what is sometimes called the "Palmer Philosophy," the thinking man's approach to pitching. "It's like chess," he says. "Whoever out-thinks the other is the one who wins." At the same time, however, he admits that he can't do it alone. "I need a lot of help, because I'm not an all-time great."

Much has been written about the changes in Stone's mental attitude. "I just had to stop believing my own press," he says. "I used to go into a game just trying not to lose -- now I go out to win." Norman Vincent Peale would be proud.

Most of Stone's power of positive thinking, though, comes from a technique called "creative visualization." Before each game, the pitcher meditates, playing out the game in his head, visualizing himself getting out every batter. After he was already beginning to think this way, Stone came across a book that laid out the system in detail: "There's a yoga saying," Stone explains. "'When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.'"

But the changes in attitude might not have happened had Stone not joined the Orioles, a team that can affect a player who, like Stone, always felt himself to be "on the fringes" of other teams, in part because of his interests and personality.

As Stone told Inside Sports last fall, Giants manager Charlie Fox "thought reading hurt your eyes" and White Sox pitching coach Johnny Sain "told me he never met a ball player who smoked a pipe was aggressive enough to be successful. He also thought the fact that I was close to my parents was a liability."

Not so in Baltimore. In the clubhouse at Miami Stadium, the Orioles' spring training headquarters, center fielder Al Bumbrey is lying on his back, watching a soap opera on a tiny portable TV. Right fielder Ken Singleton lounges nearby. Stone is talking to a reporter about wine, about why Robert Mondavi 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon is his favorite. No one ribs him, no one puts him down, no one even notices.

The Orioles may be the only baseball team in America where that would happen, where a guy could talk knowledgeably about wine without, at the very least, being ridiculed as pretentious; the Orioles may be the only baseball team whose players read more novels on planes than Sports Illustrated or Playboy. It's a tone perhaps set in part by team leader Palmer, who might, on any given day, be seen reading Pasternak.

While colleges were the training ground for professional football and basketball players, through the '50s most major league baseball players came from high schools in small towns and rural areas. They were tobacco chewing, dirt-scuffing farm boys. Though that is no longer the case, the Orioles are unusual in the high percentage of college-educated players on their roster. Stone himself has a B.A. in history and politics from Kent State University.

He is an inveterate reader whose tastes run largely to thrillers -- Trevanian is a favorite author -- and books about the Mafia. Neither he nor his teammates could be considered intellectuals by the standards of the academic or artistic communities; they are simply intelligent men who know current affairs and understand the most subtle jokes on "Saturday Night Live." Not much Leonard Bernstein or John Kenneth Galbraith perhaps, but for a man who has heard former teammates label anyone with sophisticated tastes as homosexual, the Orioles are a definite improvement.

Even so, Stone says, "I am definitely not one of the boys." And though the four pitchers -- Stone, Palmer, McGregor and Flanagan -- are close in the clubhouse, constantly talking, sharing information, asking and giving advice, working out together, Stone doesn't see a great deal of his teammates socially. For one thing, most of the players are married and have families. When decks of cards are brought out to fill long stretches of idle time on the road, Stone gets bored. "I hate cards," he says, "and I don't like to go out drinking with the guys. But I do like to go out to dinner with them." Maybe not exactly one of the boys, but not quite the outcast he once felt himself to be either.

Dinner is a subject dear to Steve Stone's heart.

"I always think you can tell a lot about a person by his or her approach to food, by how much is enjoyed," he says, showing a visitor through Steven, the restaurant he and partner Bill Frost opened in January in Scottsdale.

It is in this setting that the complexities of Steve Stone are most apparent: the careful planners who undertook the restaurant business as methodically and attentively as he did baseball; the forthright, witty, nice guy whose best friend Frost calls him "the most honest person I've ever known," and says, "I don't know what I'd do if we couldn't laugh together"; the moody introvert who reveals that "I'm very careful about who I let get close to me"; the compleat sensual man, poet and gourmet and appreciator of beautiful women, dressed in a black wide-wale corduroy Edwardian-cut jacket, white-on-white shirt open to reveal gold chains and chest hair, his head of black curls impeccably styled.

He moves easily about the 140-seat restaurant "cultivating the customers." The restaurant is an expensive outlay, a hybrid of New York and Western chic in varying patterns and textures and shades of brown: terra cotta tile floors, mahogany paneled walls with brass inlays, six-foot jalousie windows with redwood louvered shutters. What appears to be a skylight opens not to the real Arizona sky but to a painted scene of blue sky, white clouds.

Stone put himself into the restaurant business the way he does everything. Back in Chicago, he decided he had to have something to do if his baseball career ended (then a distinct possibility) and he convinced a local restaureteur to teach him the business by letting him work in the restaurant without salary. Eventually he got involved with Lettuce Entertain You, an organization that owned nine restaurants in the Chicago area, including Lawrence of Oregano and the famous Pump Room. For a while, during the off-season, Stone worked in the Pump Room 13 hours a day, six days a week, doing a little of everything. When he and Frost decided to sell their interests in Lettuce Entertain You and go out on their own, they chose Scottsdale because they both liked the city and were attracted by the burgeoning economy of the Phoenix area.

Their restaurant specializes in a kind of "nouvelle cuisine," which simply means light cooking, a deemphasis on oils and fats, lots of vegetables. "I call it Western nouvelle," Stone says, because the restaurant tries to use a lot of Southwestern produce and fruit, as well as sauces.

What could one tell about Steve Stone from the way he approaches food? Careful planning certainly hasn't killed enjoyment. Urging a visitor to "try a little of everything," he orders mozzarella marinara -- mozzarella cheese fried in a light batter and covered with a spicy tomato sauce -- his own recipe. "My contribution to the dish was the presentation," he says of a geometrically patterned plate of herbed shrimp.

Then there is Mr. Manheim's Soup, named for Stone's grandfather, who loved soup and who "taught me the most important lesson I ever learned, that you can do anything you really want to do." Edward Manheim had 14 heart attacks, but he had "a burning desire" to see his only grandson bar mitzvah, a ceremony that took place in September 1960. He died two months later.

In addition to those other complexities, there is another: a kid from working-class Cleveland whose father was a jukebox repairman and who never had a vacation until he was 21; a Jewish kid who made it in professional baseball, and whose hero was, and is, another Jewish pitcher, Sandy Koufax, wearer of the number "32" Stone took as his own ("I'd have like Koufax even if he were an Arab," Stone once said); a kid who identified with the legend of Rasputin heard in a high school history class because the Russian rose from the Siberian peasantry to become the most powerful person in court, because he"was so many things to so many people -- to some pure good, to others pure evil," because he defied death at the hands of the aristocrats by swimming upstream for miles with several bullet wounds in his body.

Stone has enjoyed material rewards of success. In addition to his restaurant and some real estate investment in California, he owns two houses and a Porsche 911SC. Ten years from now he thinks he will be "a writer and a partner in a very successful restaurant enterprise."

Does he want to make a lot of money?

"Just more than I'll ever need," he laughs, "more than I'll ever need."

Having things to overcome -- being from a minority or being short or being poor -- has a variety of effects, depending on what other influences one encounters. It may make you ambitious and disciplined and hardworking, but being an outsider of any kind can also give you a different perspective, can make you determined to enjoy what you have for as long as you have it.

Back in spring training, the Orioles are scheduled to play the Kansas City Royals at Baltimore's spring training headquarters, Miami Stadium, a dingy, aging concrete structure in a rundown Miami neighborhood. The afternoon workout has been interrupted by a chilly rain that threatens to cancel the evening game.

Stone, though he's not pitching tonight, has reported for practice, having already run six miles on the geach at Key Biscayne, where he's been renting a $1,500-a-month condominium since early February. He drove to Florida in his blue Porsche then, several weeks before the majority of the team reported, to begin his own rigorous preparation for the season because, he says, "I don't want to look back and say that I came off the best year I ever had and got complacent."

Ptiching is probably the most unnatural of motions and pitchers inevitably suffer some injuries to arm or shoulder or both. "Sure, I know I'm borrowing health from the future, but I'll still be able to get out on the golf course when I retire," he laughs.

Steve Stone is no stranger to pain, though, nor to the most deadly of pitchers' injuries, a torn rotator cuff, the shoulder muscle that controls the rotation of the pitcher's arm. In 1976 when Stone was pitching for the Cubs, his shoulder began to get sore. "I couldn't pitch across the room," he says, "and I didn't know what was wrong." The team doctor tried to get him to take cortisone shots, but Stone refused. The next step, he knew, would be surgery, an operation from which few pitchers successfully recover. The Cubs were skeptical about the injury, Stone says, because he was at the end of his contract and they thought he was holding out for more money.

Stone persisted in resisting the doctor's advice, and through a mutual friend found Dr. Thomas Sattler at the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle. Sattler used a form of physical therapy called cryotherapy, which involves freezing the injured limb and using a series of weight-resistant exercises. When the ice comes off, the muscle expands and stays that way for about two hours, and that, plus the exercises, increases the blood flow and helps heal the tear. "Had Steve taken those cortisone shots, he probably wouldn't be playing today," says Sattler. As it was, two months later he was back pitching normally. "No thanks to the Cubs," Stone jabs.

Sitting back in the empty bleachers of Miami Stadium, waiting out the rain, Stone seems relaxed and carefree, but there's also the scrappy Steve Stone, the one who hasn't, and won't ever, forget what he considers shabby treatment. Baltimore is different, he says, but on a lot of teams "players are treated like so much property." Even though he had recovered from the rotator cuff injury before the end of the season, the Cubs still wouldn't pitch him: "I think they were afraid it might make me more valuable in the money market." In September he went to Cubs owner Bill Wrigley to find out what was going on and whether his contract would be renewed. "The front office said, 'We'll get back to you.' Well, I haven 't checked messages yet, but . . ." The Cubs let him go without negotiating, and the White Sox signed him.

There are other things, too, times whne he thought he wasn't rewarded for his performance for reasons he still doesn't understand. In 1973 he pitched 30 innings for the White Sox, giving up only two runs, but wasn't used the last 47 days of the season. "It just didn't make sense," Stone says, shaking his head. In 1975 he started for the Sox because Rick Reuschel was out with the flu. Stone shut out Montreal. "Eventually I was 5-0. Then I pinched a nerve and ended up 12-8. I get to spring training the next year and I'm still the fifth starter. I don't know why. Maybe because I'm not 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. I don't know." The memory still smarts.

It happened in Baltimore, too: "After July 6, 1979, I went 13 starts without a loss and I still wasn't the fourth starter last year until Dennis [Martinez] got hurt. I felt I threw well enough to be one of the four starters. I don't know." He pitched only two innings during the 1979 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates even though he had gone 5-0 since July, and he wasn't happy about that either. For the press, however, he made a joke that was much repeated: "Sixty million people watched the World Series, and I was one of them."

That kind of thing has happened enough that in mid-March the winner of the 1980 Cy Young award refused even to count on being one of four starters this year. He has to be kidding. "No," he insists, shrugging his shoulders. t"Who knows?This management has been in love with Dennis from the beginning . . . ."

(Later, pitching coach Miller laughs at Stone's unbelief: "He'll probably be the first one out of the bullpen." And Stone did, in fact, start the Orioles' first game of the season against Kansas City.)

Steve Stone is still hungry after all these years.

Stone is not, insists, afraid of losing or even of his career ending." "Basketball is a great sport, but the United States wouldn't fold without it," he says. Nor would he: "Like I said, I figured if I stayed around long enough, I was bouund to win, but if I don't, well . . . This is not my life! This is a game! I've always given it everything I ever had. So if I lose I'm not goig to throw a fit, beat my date or stomp on little children." He laughs at the idea, slapping his glove against his thigh.

What Steve Stone is, perhaps, is a man discovering the ambiguities of success.

"I try to be happy every day," says the man who some would say has everything to lose if he doesn't have a winning season this year," and almost without exception I am. And If I don't have a good year this year, well, it's been a lot of fun. I got a lot out of it and I've accomplished a lot and I've had most of the game's thrills -- the World Series (even if it was only two innings), starting the All-Star Game, the Cy Young. Nobody can take that away.

"It's kind of amazing, but I've faced most of the game's greatest hitters. I was just a kid and I pitched to Willie Mays and then to Hank Aaron and George Brett. Not many people can say that.