A familiar baseball flower of spring -- the Phenom -- rarely blooms these days.

Surely, you recall the Phenom. He was young, strong and virtually unknown until, like Superman, he burst forth from training camps in the South and West. Often he was overrated, by teams desperate to sell tickets or writers anxious for a fresh angle.

The Phenom was easily spotted, because baseball fertilized him with its best cliches.

"Like the 'can't-miss tag'," said the Orioles' Mark Belanger, who was not a Phenom, but has known a few. "And 'speed and power to burn'."

And "hits it out of every park, including Yellowstone." And "throws the ball through a brick wall." Invariably, there would be a headline in baseball's bible, The Sporting News, that read: "Baby Belter Bombs Best Serves Into Orbit."

Mantle and Murcer, Aaron, Mays and Bench were Phenoms, as were Dave Nicholson and Roger Freed, Jim Fuller, Dick Wakefield, Bob Bailey and the most famous Phenom Phlop of all time, Clint Hartung in the late '40s.

All of them -- and more -- were legends before their time. Fast? A youthful Richie Ashburn was said to have been so swift in his native Nebraska that he would dash through fields catching rabbits, discarding one after another until he found one suitable for dinner.

With the exception of Clint Hurdle a year ago, however, the Phenom has been in decline for some time. Perhaps, like his kin, the Grizzled Veteran, he will return to prominance. Peter, Paul and Mary never ask where have all the Phenoms gone. Still, one wonders.

"I don't know if baseball's as popular as it was 10 years ago," said Belanger. "I don't think kids play it every day, like we did. Maybe that's one of the reasons baseball isn't attracting most of the great athletes."

And the great athletes baseball does attract, the Yanks' Paul Blair insists, are not given enough time to become Phenoms. They make the majors too soon. They go from high school or college hotshot to the big leagues, in effect bypassing the Phenom phase.

"Expansion has diluted the talent," he said. "Players grow up in the big leagues instead of having time to develop in the minors. And the standards aren't what they used to be. Writers misuse the word 'superstars.'

"There aren't any Aarons or Frank Robinsons any more. Now they were bona fide superstars, who hit well above.300 with 30 to 35 homers a year. Now if you hit.250 and get a key homer or so at the right time you're a superstar.

"Ain't never seen a superstar hit.250."

Blair, in his 15th major-league season, was not a Phenom, "although there was the understanding by people within baseball that I'd be here a long time, And that was more than enough for me."

There have been near-Phenoms on the Orioles in recent years, Bobby Grich and Don Baylor, now with the Angels. And Rich Dauer, who reached that status simply by playing regularly for the University of Southern California.

"Yeah, I know about Phenoms," Dauer said, dourly. "You're a rookie who's supposed to play like a 10-year veteran. I've spent two years realizing half my potential. But whether (Phenoms) make it depends a lot on who they play for.

"You can't be a Phenom if you can't do what you want to do. Take (Fred) Lynn. I played with him at SC and no one thought he'd do as well as he did so quickly. But he broke in with a championship team.

"With another team, he might still be in Triple A. It all depends on who you're with."

The decline of the Phenom can be partly traced to the blossoming of that other athletic flower, the Free Agent.Because baseball is so afraid this new strain will poison the entire garden, the Free Agent is a spicy topic that guarantees what the Phenom only promised: ticket sales and readership.

Pete Rose is infinitely more marketable than Bill Sample, who a generation ago would have been a Phenom of the highest order. Sample is a rookie outfielder with the Texas Rangers whose bat, as they say, smokes.

In his first full season in the minors, two years ago, Sample hit.348 in 113 games. Last season, with Tucson of the Pacific Coast League, he hit.352, with 1, homers and 99 RBI, in 131 games.

More significantly, somebody with a reputation -- Hal Keller -- said something wildly complimentary about him.

"This is the finest young hitter it has been my privilege to watch," said Keller, who also participated in the scouting, signing and early development of Rod Carew and Bill Madlock. So Phenoms are not quite extinct, merely out of fashion at the moment.

"But all the Free Agent publicity is helpful (to the re-emergence of the Phenom)," said Belanger, "because it makes the really fine young athletes think more and more about choosing baseball over the other sports. He knows there's loads of money available now in baseball."