It had been a game of beauty, skillfully crafted by one of baseball's best pitchers. On only 102 pitches, 70 of them strikes, Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles shut out Milwaukee, 7-0, on two scratch singles yesterday. At his locker afterward, Palmer heard someone say, "What a good way to start the season."

The Orioles' general manager, Hank Peters, stood five feet from the pitcher whose continuous success has held the franchise together the last four, five seasons. For reasons unfathomable by men of common sense, Peters has chosen to pick a fight with Palmer.

No, no, they aren't arguing over big bucks. Palmer hasn't threatened to retire and sell pretty underware if Peters doesn't give him six zillion dollars in unmarked money. They don't like each other because of - are you ready for this? - $15,000.

That's the money Palmer claims is due him as payment for "significant contributions" to the Orioles last season. Those words were written into Palmer's contract with the stipulation he be given a bonus of $15,000 if he made such contributions.

Peters didn't want to pay up. All Palmer did last season was win 20 games (against 11 defeats), lead the league in innings pitched and finish second in the Cy Young voting. Without Palmer these Orioles are a second-division team. But Peters paid the $15,000 only under pressure and is asking major league baseball, in the form of an arbitrator, to make Palmer give the money back.

Anyway, Palmer was at his locker yesterday, taking congratulations, and he saw the general manager lurking behind a crowd of reporters. So Palmer made a point of speaking loudly when he said, "Yeah, I may never lose again." And he looked over a newspaperman, to see if Peters heard.

He had. "I hope not," Peters said.

He smiled broadly, and Palmer smiled broadly, and you knew the pitcher was loving it and the general manager was hating it. Peters walked past Palmer and said, "Have a great season, Jim."

Palmer looked after the general manager. Again loudly, he told the sportswriter, "He says that only because my trading value will be greater."

Oh, just kidding. Palmer said it was all in fun. He likes to kid. Even in the dugout, during the game, he said he was kidding around with the Orioles' manager, Earl Weaver.

Through five innings, Palmer, making his first start after a sore shoulder limited his spring training work, had not allowed a hit. So he sought out Weaver.

"I told him, 'If I pitch a no-hitter, I'll only owe Peters $14,000,'" Palmer said. "He said, "'You're thinking about that again?' and I said, 'damned right.'"

Smile he might, but Palmer in fact is not kidding about the $15,000. "If I lose the case (in arbitration), I'll be mad," he said.

Defenders of Peters have built a case that Palmer did not make significant contributions last season. They say he lost important games to teams ahead of the Orioles. A 20-victory season of Palmer, they say, is just an ordinary performance, nothing significant. After all, he's done it seven times in the last eight seasons.

He has come to be taken for granted, then, and over a petty $15,000 the Orioles risk upsetting the fragile chemistry that a year ago made this team the surprise of the American League season. The Orioles won 97 games with an assemblage of rookies and couldn't give-them-away veterans. Not only has Peters argued about giving Palmer his $15,000, the general manager has gone to arbitration with Ken Singleton, Rudy May and Mike Flanagan, too, denying they made "significant contributions."

Should the Orioles win those arbitration cases - Singleton hit .328, and pitchers May and Flanagan won 33 games between them - the current tide of discontent will run even more strongly against a front office seen as having doubled-crossed the men whose performance makes the money that keeps a general manager on the job.

We may be left to wonder how a general manager gets himself in such a situation, for one man's significance often is another's egomania. But yesterday's baseball game cleared up one worrisome point: Jim Palmer's arm is as good as ever.

The first week in March, after throwing in a rainstorm, Palmer noticed pain in the tricep area of his right arm. For 13 days, he didn't pitch. It is his habit to pitch about 30 innings in Florida before breaking camp for the major league season. To get that much work this time, he had to skip the Orioles' first road trip.

He pitched against Class AAA teams in Florida, never working more than five innings at a time, simply trying to get rid of the pain in the arm. Before yesterday's game, he said the arm was yet tight, as it always is in early April, and he wasn't sure what to expect against the Brewers, a team that had shelled Baltimore pitching for 40 runs in the season's first three games.

"He had the best stuff I've ever seen him have," said catcher Rick Dempsey afterward. "He had the fast ball on the outside corner and it was sailing, moving, rising. And he was getting the breaking stuff over consistently."

Palmer retired the first 14 hitters before walking a man. Milwaukee's first hit came with one out in the sixth inning. An old Palmer battery-mate and friend, Andy Etchebarren, swung awkwardly at a low outside fast ball. Beaten, he was trying to avoid a called third strike and plunked it off the end of the bat, the ball bouncing between Palmer's legs into center field.

Palmer stabbed at the ball too late, but said, "I didn't even see it."

Milwaukee's other hit was Larry Hisle's seventh-inning ground ball to third baseman Doug DeCinees, who fielded it deep behind the bag and was a milli-second late, with the throw to first base.Palmer retired the next seven men in order to end it.

Two Baltimore runs scored on balks by pitcher Jeff Augustine. Two others came in on Eddie Murray's bases-loaded double.*