Baseball often seems determined to punish quiet excellence. The braggart wins fame, the crude self-promoter gets richer, while the gentleman is ignored.

As Ken Singleton stepped to the plate here in Memorial Stadium this week, the crowd should have stood in an enormous ovation for the Oriole outfielder who had slugged .962 during the Birds' 15-1 streak.

It didn't.

Actually, a few people clapped - politely, of course, since any loud noise would star who is content to let his baseball virtue be its own reward.

If one word captures Singleton, it is "exemplary."

In four Oriole seasons, Singleton has batted exactly .300, walked 100 times a year, and had an on-base percentage of .407. Only one AL player has been harder to get out: Rod Carew.

The handsome 6-foot-4, 211-pound switch hitter will neither smoke, imbibe, drink coffee or swing at a bad pitch.

Singleton is that model, analytical ballplayer who uses his brian to squeeze the last ounce of performance out of his powerful, but limited, body. This perfectionist and perpetual student, however, does his job with relaxed humor. He may lead the league in sly, subdued smiles.

For the last six of his nine seasons, Singleton has been on that highest step of the baseball ladder that yet remains below greatness.

This year, that may change. At 31, a confluence of factors make Singleton believe "I can maximize everything in one year."

The statistics agree: Singleton leads the league in walks and is second in homers, total bases and slugging. Every leader list bears his name.

It is said that top players often reach a peak when everything comes together for them. For instance, Singleton can predict the future.

"He'll tell me the exact progression of pitches that he will get - if this, then that," says Ray Miller, an O's coach. "Then Kennedy'll say, "The fourth pitch will be a slider low and away and I'll single to left field.'"

"Then he does it. The game can't be that easy."

It has been for Singleton, whose onbase mark was .580 during the 15-1 streak, and who, after ripping eight homers in 13 games, has a new nickname: "Homerton."

Told of his colossal stats - the best power streak of his life - Singleton said, "Well, I guess I was helping the club a little bit . . . I knew I was hot when the pitchers started rolling the ball up to the plate."

None of Singleton's numbers - the .337 average, .646 slugging average, .460 on-base percentage - surprise him. They are merely the product of a winter-long face-saving crusade.

Last season, Singleton suffered constantly from the lingering pain of major elbow surgery - removal of bone chips and transplantation of the ulnar nerve - in December of 1977. His right-handed swings were timid and powerless (.233) and his outfield throws were pathetic (one assist). Fickle O's fans booed.

His final figures - .293 average, 20 homers, 81 RBI - were a testimony to clench-jawed endurance.

"It was a daily struggle," he recalled. "I had trouble reaching the center fielder with throws in warmups . . . It was one long humiliating year of watching every plow horse go from first to third on anything hit to me," said Singleton, who once led the majors with 22 assists in one year.

"It's so depressing to be criticized and booed and know from the start that you cant'd do the job, that it gets on our mind."

Singleton vowed to make '79 his year of retribution.

"This past winter I rode a bicycle every day to help my speed," says Singleton, whose running is average, at best. "I'd put my son, who's 2 years old, on the back, and we'd practice his A-B-Cs and counting to 10. I'd point out the horses and cows, and try not to run into any of them."

Singleton's Christmas surprise was the word that his neighbor in the Los Angeles suburbs, Rick Dempsey, finally had made good on his project to build a backyard batting cage with an Iron Mike.

"After we finished hitting, Dempsey would point the pitching machine like a bazooka and shoot fly balls for me to chase," says Singleton. "I'd be running through the streets and into peoples' yards. Demp'd even get his wife out aiming this howitzer at us.

"One day I was tromping through a lady's flower bed for a long fly and she came out and said, 'Mr. Singleton, when does spring training start?'"

It couldn't start soon enough for Singleton. For the past three weeks, he has seen all his plans fall in place, batting .424 with 20 RBI and 19 walks in 18 games.

Singleton is not yet accustomed to being "Homerton." He is so used to assuming that his contributions will be ignored - a trick Baltimore fans have mastered - that he teasingly reminds Manager Earl Weaver of everything he does.

"I'll say, 'Funny how a little walk can start such a big inning,'" said Singleton, "and he'll say, 'Yup, Kenney. You sure got a key walk, all right.'

"Sometimes it doesn't hurt to remind him of what you did."

That typical Singleton modesty has been a limitation in the past. His style is the antithesis of gung-ho. At the plate, he laughs and chats with the catcher, then gossips his way around the bases - joking and smiling at every station. Traditionally, Singleton blends, rather than leads. The O's wish that would change.

"We haven't had a team leader like Frank Robinson in recent years," says pitcher Jim Palmer.

"A team needs a 'bat leader' to get to a World Series, just as it need a pitching leader," says General Manager Hank Peters.

Already, Singleton has shown unaccustomed traces of fire - getting ejected for the second time of his career last month. "I've been thrown out once by a professional umpire and once by a night watchman," quipped Singleton, at the time.

"It turns out the guy (amateur ump) was really a refrigerator door salesman," said Singleton, giving a nice stage pause. "I guess he can't even sell the whole refrigerator."

Singleton never will think of himself as the "straw that stirs the drink" - even if he is. He prefers to include Eddie Murray, Lee May, Doug DeCinces and even rookie Gary Roenicke as equal partners in one big demolition crew.

"I don't think it's competitive between us," he says. "Eddie looks like he's sitting in a rocking chair up at the plate, but it's always the pitchers that seem to get worn out. . . Lee's hiting .300 with an injured hand. Maybe we oughta drop a brick on his other paw. . . When all of us are hitting together, the pitchers don't know what to do." CAPTION: Picture, Ken Singleton