From the box seats behind home plate one day last week, Billy Graham caught his first glimpse of the verdant ballfield. A leather-bound, gold embossed Bible tucked under one arm, he surveyed the 52,696 empty seat, the blank scoreboard with its Baltimore Orioles seal and Busch Beer ad and the spot where Earl Weaver has taken the Lord's name in vain before hundreds of umpires.

Memorial Stadium was about to become a sanctuary for eight days, the scene of the Greater Baltimore Billy Graham Crusade, and now, before it all began, Graham felt compelled to pray. "I said, 'Lord, there are going to be many people of many different backgrounds here,"' he recounted moments later. "'I hope you'll bring the right ones who need your help."

But it is not prayer alone that has drawn tens of thousands of people to the baseball stadium every nite this week while Baltimore's beloved Orioles are on the road. Graham has had three decades of success in the religious crusade -- this is his 275th crusade -- and in that time, his $30 million-a-year Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has developed an elaborate, virtually foolproof game plan to draw crowds and conversions wherever he goes.

The campaign, outlined in detailed manuals and instruction sheets, begins almost a full year in advance, and enlists thousands of local volunteers and a handful of well-placed politicians. It merges the Christian gospel with worldly concepts such as Madison Avenue-style marketing, grass-roots political organizing and -- in this city -- big helpings of Baltimore boosterism. (On opening day, Graham wore a "Baltimore's Best" tie, a gift from Mayor William Donald Schaefer.) And it has the powerful drawing card of Graham himself, an international celebrity whose superstar status has outlasted that of any other evangelist in American history.

Here in Baltimore, it all came together on Sunday when the 62-year-old Graham strode onto the ballfield, and mounted the 28- by 48-foot wooden pulpit erected at second base. Behind him, the giant scoreboard was lit up with the words: "Jesus said: I am the way, the truth and the life." He faced the crowd of 32,500 people -- far more than organizers had predicted in this heavily Catholic, ethmic city -- and then he preached the simple, evangelistic message that he has taken around the world, his arms flailing like signal flags, his body swaying.

Thiry years ago, Graham laced the message with Cold War rhetoric. In the last two years, he has moderated it dramatically, weaving in calls for nuclear disarmament, human rights and racial justice, clearly distancing himself from the burgeoning Christian Right. And still the converts stream forward -- 1,700 men, women and children on opening day alone -- accepting his ritual invitation to become Christians.

"I watched that and I was utterly amazed," recalled Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Pascal, who sat on the podium with Graham, near Mayor Schaefer and dozens of celebrities and local leaders. "I looked at [Schaefer] and he looked at me. And we just shook our heads. We think of ourselves as being in the business of trying to motivate people. But that! That was power."

The Graham crusade comes to town only at the request of local religious and civic leaders, but it is not enough simply to send an invitation. The Baltimore Breakfast Group, an organization of Christian businessmen, learned that the hard way. They began courting him 12 years ago.

"We kept asking Dr. Graham to come, and his staff kept telling us they were waiting for 'God's time," me, and his staff kept telling us said Clarence Hottel, a member of the group. "We began to get a little impatient. Businessmen are like that. They don't like to be put off."

Determining "God's timetable" is a key to the success of any crusade, according to the Rev. Sterling Houston, director of the Graham crusades in North America. The crusade gets invitations to more than 200 cities each year, and it selects the ones with the broadest support for a crusade. The goal is to strengthen local churches and to draw an optimal number of "unchurched" people into them, Houston said.

Houston started making regular visits here about five years ago to assess the breadth of support. At first, Graham staffers recall, Baltimore was viewed as an "evangelists' graveyard" because its mainline Protestant churches spurned evangelicalism. But the Breakfast Group kept recruiting and Houston kept coming back, meeting with ministers and laymen at the downtown Hilton or Holiday Inn to hear their progress reports.

After each visit, Houston wrote down his findings and placed them in a special Baltimore file that grew to be an inch thick. Eventually, he put Baltimore on a list of cities that appeared ripe for a Graham crusade.

Each year, the evangelist and his top executive assistants, known as "the team," get together in their Minneapolis offices to pray about the choice between cities, but the final decision rests with Graham, Houston said. In 1979, Graham decided that "God's time" had come for Baltimore.

The only caveat was a Sunday-to-Sunday booking at Memorial Stadium ("More unchurched people will come to the open air than will come inside," Graham explained recently). Given the Orioles' crowded calendar, it took almost two years to secure the dates, June 7-14, 1981 -- after the Mexican crusade and before the one in Calgary, Alberta. Later this year, the crusade will go to San Jose and Houston.

Houston then helped local ministers and civic leaders pick an administration committee of 15 men and women, blacks and whites, clergy and laymen, all selected according to time-tested criteria, intended to reach a broad swath of the community. He also commissioned an in-depth report, "Baltimore: A Panoramic View," to help Graham localize his message with references to city politics, sports teams and city history.

Then, in August 1980, ten months before opening day, it was time for the arrival of the crusade director, the Rev. Elwyn Cutler, who had put together Graham crusades in Detroit, South Bend, Toronto, Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

The budget was set at $629,200, covering office expenses, stadium rental, amplifiers, advertising, moving expenses, printing and more -- all to be financed locally through fundraising and by passing collection buckets at the services. Graham's salary is paid separately by the Minneapolis organization, and all leftovers from local collections are returned to the local committee, for use in Christian causes.

Cutler knew from past eperience that Memorial Stadium, with its 53,000 seats, could accommodate people from within a 150-mile radius. He immediately started compiling a mailing list of Protestant ministers as far south as Virginia and north into Pennsylvania.

Working out of a 3,000-square-foot office that, except for the framed New Testamant quotations and prayers decorating the walls, resembles a political campaign headquarters, volunteers stuffed thousands of envelopes to mail to participating ministers and laymen.

Using the mailings, Cutler recruited more than 700 clergymen a volunteer organizers. Then came 14 straight nights of ministers' seminars, complete with lectures and a film, "The Crusade Story," on how to build participation in their congregations. An array of regional committees was formed, with counterparts in each church -- committees for the crusade choir, but fundraising for youth, for women, for men. The crusade rented space on major roadways for red-white-and-black billboards advertising the crusade.

Then came the prayer rallies, the Christian Life and Witness class for the 2,600 men and women who volunteered to serve as "counselors" for the new converts at each service, and the neighborhood prayer sessions, organized around weekly, Graham-produced broadcasts on Christian radio stations.

In all the months-long mobilizing, there was only one public relations fiasco: The Baltimore superindent banned crusade-sponsored assemblies in the public schools after Baltimore Colts defensive tackle Joe Ehrmann, the featured speaker at the Northwestern High School assembly, began testifying about his Christian experiences before 2,000 students.

A yellow school bus has rolled out of the First Baptist Church in Laurel every evening this week about 5:45, bound for the crusade like hundreds of others chartered by participating churches.

The other night, Daniel Webster, 37, the Tennessee-born manager of a nearby photo studio, sat in one seat, wolfing down cold fried chicken since he had not had time to grab a bite after work. Ten-year-old Cindy Lenart, who said she found Christ while watching a televised Billy Graham crusade four years ago, was reading "The Haunted Mansion Mystery," by Virginia Smith.

In dress and background, the bus-riders from Laurel were typical of the crowds Graham has drawn to the stadium this week. All are white; most are married, born before or during World War II. Some had children in tow. The women, sporting pastel, cotton dresses, pantsuits or skirts, wore little make-up and simple hair-dos.The men wore sport shirts and slacks. They work as teachers, store managers, social workers, housewives, nurses, small businessmen.

Patricia Walter, a nurse and a volunteer counselor for the new converts, remarked as she walked toward the stadium that she had at first felt uncomfortable with the crusade's commercial aspects. "But I decided that that's between Billy Graham and God," she said. "Who am I to judge? He preaches God's word accurately, and that's all that matters."

Barry Andrews, 25, came down to the field after one of Graham's sermons this week to declare himself a Christian. A 25-year-old landscaper, Andrews said he would not have come at all, except that he noticed the crusade billboards on several highways.

"I started seeing them about two weeks ago," he said. Then I thought, 'Well, its free.' And then I thought maybe it would be a good thing. I didn't expect to come down and accept Christ. But he (Graham) motivated me. It was something about the way he talked."

Andrews and his wife, Ginny, were given Christian counseling by another couple, and received a 38-page Billy Graham pamphlet entitled "Living in Christ," with four lessons in Christianity.They wrote their addresses on an enclosed card, which was sorted and filed that night, along with more than 1,800 others filled out by converts. The next day, the Andrew's names were to be mailed to a pastor, who is to invite them to join his church. They are to receive more counseling through two weeks of "New Life in Christ" radio broadcasts on local Christian stations.

The Baltimore crusade, with its huge turnout, represents a major landmark for Graham. For it was in this same city that he came as a 30-year-old, relatively unknown envangelist in 1949 for a 12-day, poorly attended crusade at the Lyric Theater.

While the 4,600-voice choir rehearsed in the background on the eve of opening day, Graham relaxed in a stadium lounge, reminiscing about how much has changed since then. As for his success, he credited solely "the sovereign power of God." The moderation in tone is easier to explain: "As I've grown older, I've become more tolerant," he said "I've met people who hold other views who are such marvelous people."

He said he recalls little about his 1949 trip here. Most of those who worked so hard to bring Graham to Baltimore this time said the same.

"I remember that he was here, but only vaguely," said 1981 crusade committee chairman Herbert Fivehouse. "I know I didn't go." He paused for several seconds, as if about to explain why. Then he smiled, shrugged and said:

"Who was Billy Graham?"