Elrod Hendricks, the antique catcher-coach of the Baltimore Orioles, pitched recently for the first time in his life. In a 24-10 loss to Toronto, Hendricks pitched 2 1/3 innings. He gave up one hit. Promptly, visions of greenbacks danced before his eyes.

"They offer you a contract?" asked Don Zimmer, the Boston Red Sox manager. This was batting cage banter.

"Sure thing," Hendrick said. "Shouida seen me. Curve ball, Fast ball, change - I had it all. A contract? Offered me $2 million.

Zimmer didn't bat an eye. "For three years?" he said.

"You got it," Hendricks said. "If Wayne Garland is worth $2 million, so am I."

There it is, the obligatory Wayne Garland putdown. Garland is baseball's most conspicuous free-agent failure. After winning 20 games for Baltimore in 1976, the right-handed pitcher was given a 10-year, $2.3 million contract by Cleveland. For the Indians, Garland went 13-19 in 1977 and was 2-3 this year before shoulder surgery that may end his career.

If you don't like the free-agent system that now is the law of baseball, you bring up Wayne Garland's name. It's a shame, you say, all that money for nothing. You say disloyal baseball players demand millions of dollars and then quit trying.

"You're wrong."

The free agent draft is good for the game. Opponents of the ideas said the rich pennant-winning teams would corner the market on talent. They said the warm-weather cities would attract most of the players. They said competitive balance would be destroyed.

Wrong again.

Of 27 free agents signed by new teams last winter, 12 went to teams with better records that those they left; 13 went to teams with worse records, and two went with teams of comparable records. The four division championships signed only two players (the Yankees hired pitchers Rich Gossage and Rawly Eastwick). If anything, then, the system spreads talent around, strengthening competitive balance.

The free agent system created new interest. For two generations, baseball sold its customers on familiar faces, keeping a team's nucleus together for years. We see now that the fan's loyalty is to the team, not to individuals, and today's Hot Stove League has its warmest discussions about available free agents. The major leagues set attendance records last season in the first year of the free agent. Those records may be broken this season.

Along with doctors, lawyers and ditch-diggers baseball players now can work wherever they can make a deal. If the system has a fatal flaw, it exists not in the players' supposed selfishness but in the owners' clearly documented greed.

Wayne Garland did nothing to demonstrate value of the $2.3 million. This year Oscar Gamble was given a contract worth $2.85 million - and he was a part-time player, hitting only against right-handed pitcher, is now distinguished by an annual salary of $250,000.

Garland, Gamble and 22 other players who have obtained $1 million deals did not threaten to hijack the owner's limousine nor kidnap his pet collie. They simply asked, and the owner said (we presume), "To make a whole bunch of money, we have to win and so I'm going to give this undistinguished pitcher his $250,000 because he might win just enough to help me make an extra million."

The free agents have driven salaries all around. Many players realize their true value in relation to the owners' profits. The average salary has risen from about $49,000 four years ago to $87,000 now. Some owners are crying immense tears over that.

They are also getting rich. Save for Charlie Finley, everybody wants to own a baseball team. Cry not for the owners.

At some point this side of bankruptcy, the owners will pull back from the free-agent market. In these early days of the players' new freedom, demand has exceeded supply. So the prices have been high.

But when the owners come to realize that free agents do not insure success, the demand will diminish. And the seven-figure contract to the Wayne Garlands of the world will vanish forevermore.

Until then, in these days of groping for reality, we see the foolishness of wealthy men throwing more than $40 million - a conservative estimate - at ballplayers who hit .257 with 14 home runs and 60 runs batted in, and at pitchers who win 10 games, lose eight and rack up a 3.82 earned run average.

That's what the average free agent will do this season, based on statistics for 39 men through this weekend.

The leading free-agent hitter is Gary Matthews of Atlanta at .297 with 10 homers and 32 RB. He ranks 18th in National League hitting.

In the American League, Larry Hisle of Milwaukee ranks 25th overall but No. 1 among free agents at .288 with 14 homers and 50 RBI.

Of the duds, Ron Blomberg of the White Sox is prominent at .217, along with Bert Campaneris of the Rangers at .212 and Joe Rudi of the Angels at .209.

Ross Grimsley, the left-handed pitcher who is one of five former Orioles who grew rich as free agents, has an 11-6 record with Montrreal. His earned run average is 3.11. Mike Torrez, late of the Yankees, 11-4 and 3.78 for the Red Sox. No other free-agent pitcher has won more than six games.

Competitive balance, so dear to Commissioner Bowie Kujh, is superb.

The Red Sox are running away and they have only two free agents. Four teams are contending in the AL West; two are heavy with free agents (the Angels and Rangers have four apiece) but two are dedicated to stamping out the devils (Kansas City and the A's have none).

Of the National League's division leaders, San Francisco has one free agent (the old man, Willie McCovey) and Philadelphia has none.

One thing more. The Phillies, Cincinnati and Los Angeles may be three of baseball's five strongest teams. They are quick to disavow any need for agents. They speak of free agents as traitors. What those teams do not say is that they pay their players incredibly in order to keep them from becoming free agents. Same thing.