Maryland politics had an important anniversary yesterday. But nobody noticed -- not even the five men whose lives were irrevocably changed because of what happened on Sept. 12, 1978.

"Sure I realize it's an anniversary," Ted Venetoulis said confidently. "It's H.L. Mencken's 100th birthday."

Pressed to look for more personal significance in the date, the former Baltimore Country executive and would-be Maryland governor-turned-media figure was uncharacteristically caught off guard for a few moments. Then it hit him:

"Does it have something to do with an election?" Sarcasm and a tinge of discomfort mingled with the jaunty tones of his voice: "So it's two years today. My, how time flies."

Two years ago on Sept. 12, the state of Maryland underwent a political convulsion that sent a stable of up-and-coming politicians into early retirement when darkhorse Harry Hughes won the Democratic primary for the state's highest office.

Ever since, political scouts haven't seen much of the pollsters' favorites in that historic upset: Blair Lee III, then the acting governor and hands-down favorite to win a four-year lease on the seat, and Venetoulis, the predicted runner-up in most polls and the darling of the liberal, intellectual elite.

Two other major figures in that contest still have their fingers in politics: Walter Orlinsky, who ran a scrappy but weak campaign, is still Baltimore City Council president, and Steny Hover, Lee's running mate and Prince George's County political golden boy, just turned down a plea from his devotees to take a vacant seat on the county council.

Lee, who spent 25 years in maryland politics, yesterday had as little inkling as Venetoulis of the significance of the day that two years ago brought a swift end to his political career.

Asked if he ever thinks of that Sept. 12, Lee said, "I distinctly remember thinking about it seven or eight months ago."

Instead, he spends "an inordinate amount of time on the stock market," successfully adding to his wealth as scion of one of Maryland's oldest and most patrician families.

Indeed, he spent a typical morning yesterday at his Silver Spring home poring over the newspaper stock market tables and getting ready to plunge into the publications he uses to chart more than 200 stocks.

"They couldn't drag me back into government with wild horses," Lee vowed.

Venetoulis, who spent the morning of the second anniversary of his political Waterloo at WBAL, Channel 11, in Baltimore taping a program on Menckin's birthday, was quick to rhapsodize about the advantage of private over public life.

"I wanna tell you something," he volunteered. "These have been the best two years I've spent in a long while. I've had a chance to catch up with myself, my friends, my family." He also noted that his annual income has risen "considerably."

Now paid to speak on "political involvement," among other subjects, Venetoulis, like Lee, swears that he has no plans to seek elected political office again. Since his defeat, he has bought the 22,000 circulation Towson Times, and has become a lecturer, complete with an agent, on the media and politics. The man who was nick-named "Tv Teddy" for his inordinate capacity to get his face on camera now earns part of his living as WBAL's political analyst.

Despite his professed delight with private life, Venetoulis, 45, said he believed the state is the poorer for having missed out on Gov. Venetoulis.

Of the Hughes administration, he said: "It typifies him, it typifies his campaign, which gave no impression at all. There's nothing, it's all gray. It's as if there's no government.

"I keep coming back to Mencken, who said, "The problem with life is not that it's a tragedy, but that it's a bore.' That's what I think about the present administration."

Asked if he would have been a better governor than Hughes, Venetoulis responded in what he termed typical modesty: "Of course."

Steny Hoyer, Lee's running mate in the 1978 primary and a politician once known for his unrestrained energy and ambition, was much more gracious in his assessment of the Hughes administration.

"Harry been doing as I expected him to do. He has brought the image . . . of a very honest individual who cares very much about maintaining the reality and integrity of government," a quietly reflective Hoyer said yesterday from his District Heights law office. "Harry is a very nice fellow, conscientious, low-key. What the public voted for, they got."

Though Hoyer, too, had to be reminded of the significance of yesterday's date, he was quick to admit, "The fact that I lost, sure, yes I think about it from time to time. But not today. I was too busy."

The day, a routine one at his office, had been filled with appointments, conferences and some long-distance phone negotiations with a Houston lawyer on an oil and gas lease for one of his clients.

But Hoyer, once viewed as the up-and-comer of Prince George's politics and the county's ticket to statewide prestige, is looking forward to returning to the fold someday -- though he won't say how or when. "Sure, I miss politics a lot," he said somewhat wistfully, "but that's not to say I'm agonizing."

Also free of agony was Orlinsky, who spent the day praying in observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. He said he has "absolutely no feelings, recollections or anything else" about his quest for the governor's chair and appeared put off by inquiries about the unsung anniversary.

"You shouldn't demean yourself by doing stories like this," he told a reporter. "There are probably many important issues that deserve more attention than my psychic well-being, which is very good, by the way."

As for the victor, Hughes, who also had to be reminded of the day's significance, Sept. 12, 1978 "was the most exciting day of my life." Hughes spent Sept. 12, 1980, trudging to cabinet meetings and other gubernatorial workaday functions. He expressed pride in his performance so far, and confidently launched into a recitation of his accomplishments such as tax relief, court reform and prison projects.

With the grace of a winner, he side-stepped questions about the criticism from past opponents, particularly Venetoulis. "I'm glad to see Ted still has the utmost confidence in himself," he said, unruffled, "I'm very happy to be where I am and I'm glad they're all being so successful."