At 9:54 p.m. on Friday evening, the Baltimore Orioles game was stopped so that a historic baseball could be taken out of play and preserved for the ages.

As the umpire rolled the ball toward the Birds' dugout, the Baltimore team erupted in cheers and war whoops. "I could hear'em hollering all the way to first base," said Jim Frey, the first base coach.

Dave Skaggs, the O's second-string catcher, had gotten the 100th hit of his career.

Typically, Skaggs' landmark single-- giving him exactly 100 more hits during his three Oriole seasons than anyone ever thought he would get in the big leagues-- was a humpbacked chop that sneaked under the shortstop's glove into center field.

The celebration in the Baltimore dugout was so loud and heartfelt that even the scoreboard operator flashed the word of Skaggs' feat to the crowd. Their reaction, since Skaggs had missed a foul pop in the previous inning, was a muttering boo.

What do they know? Nuts to'em. For weeks the O's have anticipated Skaggs' great moment, seeing it as a chance to hail the player that another coach, Rabbit Miller, says "is twice as popular as any two players on this team."

Ken Singleton had vowed he would buy Skaggs a magnum of champagne if he reached his 100th hit before Carl Yastrzemski got to his 3,000th. The countdown has been breathless-- with laughs.

"Now I know what Pete Rose felt like on his hitting streak," said Skaggs solemnly. "Yaz's chances looked good for a long time, but I got him. The key was getting hot and getting a hit in three straight games. Of course, that took me two weeks because I only get to play every fourth or fifth day."

But when I finally got The Big One, I had gone 0-for-8," said Skaggs, who put in nine years in the minors to reach the O's. "The guys said I was feeling the pressure. They've been making me feel like I was 0-for-50."

"This was one of the highlights of the team's season," said reliever Don Stanhouse, not kidding. "I may make Bagsy a cake."

Perhaps only players can appreciate Bags Skaggs' tough and valuable role. His duties are a bit obscure. For instance, when women writers were first allowed in the Bird nest this year, it was Skaggs' job to determine what constituted proper attire.

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound, 28-year-old with the walrus mustache, the gentle bassett hound face, and the bags under his eyes made himself a giant diaper out of towels and secured it with a huge safety pin.

Skaggs also is in charge of nicknames and needles. When it was observed that rookie Gary Roenicke always hit "solo" homers, Skaggs dubbed him "Lindbergh."

"Hey, Lindbergh," Skaggs yells to Roenicke, "when you hit one of those solo flights across the ocean (home runs), how come you never take along a passenger (man on base)?"

Since Rose established the habit of sprinting to first base after a walk, Skaggs has instituted the tradition of running back to the Oriole dugout after he strikes out.

As befits a man who prefers to wear his hat not forward or backward, but sideways, Skaggs exempts no man from his wit.

When mightily superstitious Manager Earl Weaver was suspended for three games last week, Skaggs began to plead with his mates to start a 33-game winning streak. "As long as we're winning, Earl won't change anything," reasoned Skaggs. "We can keep him in the stands until the end of the season."

Weaver is the storm cloud in Skaggs' life, just waiting to darken up and rain. The little skipper knows all about those hustling make-do players who fight for years in the minors just for a shot at a few games in a big-league uniform-- he was one. In fact, about half the managers in the majors were that type.

"If Earl tried to send Bagsy back to the minors for some reason," said one Oriole, "I think there'd be a mutiny."

The Birds don't have to worry about turning into the Bounty. Skaggs has learned a score of unseen ways to be valuable.

If an O's slugger wants extra early batting practice, Skaggs may pitch it. When relievers have to get up a half-dozen or more times in a game to warm up, Skaggs heats up every one-- even though he may do the equivalent of a game's worth of squatting.

"The (bullpen) phone rings, you pick up a ball to get warm and before you can get to the mound, there's Bags crouching down there grinning at you," said Stanhouse.

"Dave never refuses to do anything," said Miller. "In spring training, I've seen him warm up 30 pitchers and then ask, 'Anything you want me to do?'"

Of course, Skaggs knows that if you hit .151 in 1978 with two RBI and are currently hitting .216, you better shinny the pole to change the flag if that's the job of the day.

It would be a cruel mistake, one that backup catchers endure continually, if Skaggs were thought of as a quaint baseball factotum, a sort of rabbit's foot. That's the third string catcher. Backup catchers must be able to play the game and Skaggs can. In fact, he's one of the Rolls-Royces of that seldom-seen breed.

When Rick Dempsey missed the second half of 1977 with a broken hand, Skaggs played throughout the pennant race-- and hit .287.

"We won 97 games with Skaggs down the stretch. He's trusted," said Frey. "He's a first-class defensive catcher.

Though Skaggs' career fielding average is over .990 and his arm is respected, his personality still is his hole card. "This team's character is set," said Stanhouse, "and Bagsy is one of the central parts of it."

"It's a shame that the same traits that make a great person are also the qualities of a backup catcher," said Scott McGregor, Skaggs' roomie on the road and one of those seven Cockeysville (Md.) Orioles who are year-round neighbors and the heart of the Birds-- Skaggs, McGregor, Mike Flanagan, Mark Belanger, Terry Crowley, Rich Dauer and Al Bumbry.

"Behind the plate, he's not fiery . . . more like to tell a joke in a crisis than chew you out. He's easy to shake off."

The Birds' two defensively stalwart catchers are total opposites-- Dempsey an utterly hyper screen-climber and Skaggs a Mr. Mellow. Candidly, the O's brain trust wishes they could meld the two temperaments into one catcher. Each needs some of the other's strengths.

As an example, this spring Dempsey's fire was thought too hot for the excitable Dennis Martinez, so Skaggs was made the personal catcher of the 24-year-old Nicaraguan. Martinez immediately won 10 in a row. And Skaggs had a semiregular every-four-days job.

But now Martinez, tired from his 249 innings (most in the majors), has lost 10 of 14 and desperately needs a feisty shot in the arm. So Skaggs, through little fault of his own, is back on thin ice. Weaver seems on the verge of using the pepperpot Dempsey full time.

Skaggs would be the last to expect any different. He knows this bittersweet movie backward and forward.

"I'm just glad to be in this uniform one more day," he said.

And he has those 100 hits.