At the free agent feast last season, Billy Smith was the gizzard.

Of all the major leagues who played out their options, young Smith; who batted eight times for California in 1976, was probably the least known.

Naturally, Smith is now threatening to lead the majors in hitting.

While the likes of Wayne Garland and Don Gullett are getting their ERAs pinned back, Smith - the bargain hunters' free agent - is batting .386 and fielding 1.000 at second base for the Baltimore Orioles.

Smith, known as "Billy Ed" back home in San Antonio, did not become a free agent hoping to make a million dollars. His $80,000 contract for two years with Baltimore was the embarrassment of the re-entry sweepstakes. "Do they tax salaries that low?" Reggie Jackson might have asked.

Smith jsut wanted a chance to play, so he gambled.

In 1975, Smith hit .296 for Salt Lake City and thought that was right good. But when he got to spring training a year ago, "darned if they hadn't gone out and got some more infielders. That really got me down."

The Angels tried to hid Smith at Salt Lake last year, juggling him among all four infield positions, hoping no one would notice the "B. Smith" who hit .288 and did not play everyday.

But you can't hid a thoroughbred from old horse-traders. Eight teams drafted Smith.

"Boy, that surprised me," grins the 28-year-old who favors blue jeans, Skoal and a Clint Eastwood "man-with-no-name" gunslinger hat. "It made me feel great."

But even with the Orioles, Smith had to stand in line. Bobby Grich was gone, but International League batting champ Rich Dauer had the first shot at second.

Dauer's bat refused to get a hit its first 20 times up. So Smith got a chance to start in a doubleheader, 14 days ago. He knew any average at all wouldn't look too bad next to .000.

Smith smacked out six hits in the two games.

"It was quite a way to start," he laughed. "It's nice to have a little cushion. I've never gotten off to a start like this."

Smith has started 12 straight games and that's been enough to make Dauer dour. Smith has 17 hits, two doubles, a home run and has produced a dozen runs.

The Orioles are just learning the nickname of their top hitter. "I'm kind of tall and lanky," say the 6-foot-2 1/2, 185-pound Smith, "and I do everything sorta smooth, so they call me 'Easy.' Of course, nobody here calls me that."

Baltimoreans got their first look at Smith this week. He is already close to leading the team in cheers. In a three-game set with the frightening New York Yankees, Smith batted .500 (six-for-12), drew two walks, was in on six double plays, more two brilliant catches on popups and - except for a few line-drive outs - did not do much wrong.

Smith's reaction to finding himself in the center of an April dream has been an all-encompassing grin from under his mustache and, at least temporarily, an air of complete confidence on the field.

Wednesday, he was covering second on a hit-and-run situation when Yank Fred Stanley punched a pop-fly down the right field line. Limbering Lee May, Ken Singleton and Smith all sped toward the dying quail. Smith slid feet first and made an almost noncholant over-the-shoulder basket catch, as his teammates dodged around him.

It almost looked easy.

Nonetheless, it is at the plate that he will make his mark as "Easy Billy" or become just another fizzled Smith.

At the moment, Smith is a switch-hitter and a split personality. Left-handed, he is Rod Carew.Right-handed, he isn't quite sure yet who is.

"I've copied Carew lefthanded," Smith says. "Not a little bit. Entirely. He has a lot of stances, but I've stolen his basic one."

Crouched with the bat cocked an inch from his left ear as though he were listening to instructions from the handle. Smith isn't a bad Xerox of Carew. His line drives are stinging shots, his batting eye is good and he can jerk offspeed junk to right with authority.

"I have a good top hand. I can get an idea and attack the ball lefty," he says.

Righthanded, Smith is a slightly defensive, groundball-type slap hitter with a closed stance and a chopping stroke. Nevertheless, he is hitting more than .500 righthanded.