Just a few years ago, major league baseball was on the verge of the sort of big-league drug problem that some other sports face today.

"When I broke in eight years ago, plenty of guys took uppers (stimulants) every day to play . . . 162 games a year. They were begging for an addiction," said Baltimore Oriole Ken Singleton.

"I'd see teammates on the uppers-and-downers jag . . . guys who couldn't go to sleep after night games, then crashed and slept all day."

As recently as five years ago, it was not considered odd for a 20-game winner like Pat Dobson to tell his mates after a defeat, "I didn't get outpitched. I got out-greenied."

"Lots of players thought those greenies (amphetamine tablets) made them play better in every way," said Singleton. "What they didn't know was that they only felt like they were playing better.

"Pitchers couldn't judge the effectiveness of their own stuff. Guys'd come back to the dugout and say, 'Man, I'm throwin' hard. How come my stuff is all going up against the wall?'"

In those bad old days of recent vintage, some careers went down the greenie chute.

"I had (a highly successful player) who played for me and he couldn't bear not to maintain that level," said Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver. "He just burned himself out on amphetamines. His career was washed up in three years."

"For years there was pressure throughout baseball to take uppers as a cure-all for just about everything," said the Oriole pitching coach, Ray Miller.

"Trainers doled them out in the clubhouse for anything they thought was wrong with you. Got a sore arm? Take a coupla greenies. Got an injury, got a hangover, feel tired from a road trip or too many games? Take a few more.

"I popped a few uppers every day for the last two weeks of a AAA pennant-race as a relief pitcher," recalled Miller. "I didn't notice any effect . . . until after the season. I couldn't eat, sleep or think right for a month."

In those benighted days, "pep pills," "greenies," and "uppers" were thought to be so innocent that the Washington Senators, for instance, kept a cereal bowl full of them in the middle of the locker room. Grab a handful.

In the early 1970s, before league and government-imposed restrictions became much tighter, greenies were ubiquitous.

Few players realized until recent years the many and dangerous side effects of amphetamines. Ballplayers thought them a harmless aid to coping with a long and trying season.

"Competition was tougher in the minors 15 years ago," said Miller. "You got the message fast that any edge you needed to stay alive was the edge you'd better get.

"My first day in the Giants' camp, there were 485 players. My number was 355. We had different colored socks to tell which group we were in. You couldn't afford to be hurt or tired. A dozen guys wanted your spot.

"I remember looking at all those pros and saying, 'Jeeez, these guys sure act hyper.' I just didn't know it was all the greenies they were gulping."

Major leaguers, a cautious group, would not talk so freely about such a controversial, and recent, past if the situation were not dramatically altered for the better.

"I've seen less drugs in baseball every year," said Singleton.

"Sure, there are still guys takin' uppers every game, still night owls on a jag. But nobody thinks they're smart. It used to be a lot worse.

"You might take something to pep you up after a coast-to-coast plane flight, or if you felt particularly tired - just like a doctor or lawyer might do the same thing.

"But the important thing is that players don't believe anymore that greenies help you per se.

"You've gotta be on top of this game to play it well. It's all reflexes and judgment. You can't do that on uppers. I hear pitchers complaining that greenies throw off their control. If you're all pumped up, it throws off your timing."

Major league baseball, especially the commissioner's office, would not mind taking some of the credit for the game's cleaning up its act.

Eight years ago, baseball began an education campaign regarding alcohol and drug abuse, headed by Oriole team physician Dr. Leonard Wallenstein of Johns Hopkins University.

Through pamphlets, films, spring training lectures and the like, Wallenstein and others tried to "get the basic facts about drugs to the players . . . we thought that would be enough.

"Once they began to see that there were dangers, but no benefits, we saw progress. We pointed out studies that showed statistically that it was a mistaken idea that amphetamines could help them," Wallenstein said.

Even the use of anti-inflammatory cortisone shots for pitchers with sore arms has decreased.

"Nowadays, the players is looked at as a long-term investment," said Miller. "Players no longer seem to fear losing their jobs. That's probably the way it should be. But it still shocks me to hear of a player saying, 'My back kinds hurts. I think I better go on the disabled list.'"

Once, not so long ago, the solution - the false solution to so many baseball woes - would have been simple. Grab a greenie. CAPTION: Picture, Ken Singleton: "Sure, there are still guys takin' uppers every game. . . .But nobody thinks they're smart." AP