"Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver are like two guys on the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland. First, they're back in again, then they're out of the tunnel, then they're back in again.I'm just like a kid having fun watching them."

Mike Flanagan, Baltimore Orioles

At present, Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer are back in the tunnel together again, strapped in the same roller-coaster car, swatting away at each other as they careen toward the playoffs.

The Orioles' marvelous odd couple were in top form, screaming at each other in the clubhouse last Sunday, blasting one another in the press and, generally, having a grand old time.

As usual in such cases, pitcher Palmer is wellmeaning, smart and logically correct. And, as usual, he's missed the point.

As usual, manager Weaver's analytical mind has concocted a strategy that cuts a little deeper, has more psychological nuance and, all in all, is probably just too finely shaded for the average Hall of Fame pitcher to grasp.

And, as usual, Weaver's hot-tempered, harddrinking side has taken him into the deep waters of clubhouse bad blood.

Yesterday, Palmer was still on the third day of full-scale mad at his manager. Weaver, you see, has insisted that Palmer start the first game of the American League playoffs.

Lots of pitchers -- for instance, every other pitcher in baseball -- would consider that an honor.Palmer is different.

"That man (Weaver) is in another world," said Palmer yesterday, still insisting that 23-game winner Mike Flanagan should start the first, and if necessary, fifth game, rather than his own sore-armed self.

"I don't want to wake up on the morning of the fifth game of the playoffs and have our whole season riding on how my elbow feels that day.

"I feel I can pitch as well as Mike or anybody else, for one game. But I don't know about twice in five days. Mike's probably been the best pitcher in baseball the second half of the year. If somebody pitches twice, including the biggest game of the year, shouldn't it be him?"

As always, Palmer and Weaver have a technical, archaic baseball bone to pick. That's always how it starts. The debate over the O's rotation is a nice subject for logic chopping.

However, the real richness in the Palmer-Weaver squabbles is the way they can immediately switch to high dudgeon in an instant.

"They're so much alike that they don't want to admit it," said Flanagan. "They're very opinionated about their opinions. Neither one is about to back off from the other.When we hear 'em going at it on the bench, we say, 'Oh, it's just those two again.'

"Some days, they are like two brothers. And other days, they are like two brothers who want to kill each other."

"Father and son," said Ray Miller, the pitching coach. "Just like in a family, they really know how to get under each other's skin."

And neither will avoid confrontations. For weeks, Weaver has announced that his first priority after the Birds clinched was "to get very drunk." Naturally, he succeeded.

One would think that Palmer would avoid a severely hung over Weaver -- one of the hemisphere's most renowned and grumpy creatures.

After all, three seasons ago, on the morning after the O's were eliminated on the last weekend of the season, Weaver and his true buddy, George Bamberger, had such a row that Bamberger jumped the team and flew back to Baltimore, saying that Weaver had fired him.

"Yes, yes, of course that was what started it," said Palmer of the run-in Sunday several hours before game time, after the Orioles' rather memorable party the night before.

"That's always when it flares up with us. The same as on Father's Day (when Weaver tacked a 'Grow Up' cartoon in Palmer's locker)," said the pitcher. "He gets irrational, unintelligeable. You can't understand him. That's why I asked for a meeting on Sunday with Hank (Peters), so someone lucid would be there."

General Manager Peters has taken a wisely simple line. "If Jim says he's still thinking about not pitching, that's a lot of crap," said Peters yesterday. "Earl has managed the club rather successfully for 12 years. It's a compliment to Jim that Earl had picked him. And it's Jim's obligation to do what his manager tells him as long as he's physically able."

"I don't really know why Jimmy's so upset," said Miller. "It's not Jimmy's choice to set the rotation. He's not the manager."

But, of course, every Oriole knows the clubhouse undercurrents.

"Earl feels like I've jerked him around all season because I've had arm problems," said Palmer, "and now he's going to jerk me around. That's exactly how it seems. . . .

"He gave me an ultimatum. Pitch the first game or go on the disabled list," said Palmer. "He knows that that shows he's taking this personally. So he's grasping for arguments to substantiate his decision. There aren't many."

A somewhat different placing of emphasis comes from another Oriole, who said, "Earl and Jim were two of the first ones at the park on Sunday and they had a pretty good shouting match, one of their better ones.

"Earl asked Jim how he felt after pitching one inning the night before (in a rainout) and Jim said, 'Okay. I'll be ready for the fourth game of the playoffs.' Earl's ears went up like, 'Wait a minute. Who's the manager here?'"

Actually, both Palmer and Weaver have an almost equally good case. "We haven't really played well in two months. We haven't hit much since the All-Star break," said Palmer, the only Bird candid enough to mention it. "If we're only going to get three runs, maybe Mike is the better pitcher to have. Besides, we always seem to play better for Mike than for me. Like when (Dave) McNally was here. We always scored for him. It's just that way."

It has always been a Palmer sore spot that the current Orioles, most of them young, have ranged from tepid to cool in their feelings toward him.

Weaver's reasoning, however, is probably better than Palmer's in the long haul.

"Now that Willie Aikens is out and Rod Carew is playing hurt, California is basically a righthanded hitting team," pointed out Miller. "Jimmy's very tough against righties.

"Also, the external hullaballoo is much greater before the first game than the second and Jim has the experience of dealing with it.

"Last, we'll probably face Nolan Ryan," said Miller.

"The book on him is that if you don't fall behind him by several runs early, you have a pretty good chance of beating him. A pitcher with Jim's experience and record in big games (7-2 in postseason) has the best chance to keep us in the game."

There are even some who think that Weaver may have planned his Oriole scenario all the way through the World Series. Bird scouts, as well as common sense, see Pittsburgh as the most likely National League champion. And Pittsburgh hates to see lefthanded pitching, which bothers Omar Moreno, Dave Parker and Willie Stargell -- the heart of the Pirate attack.

If the O's are able to win the playoffs in either three or four games, and Weaver keeps insisting, "It seldom goes five games," then the Birds could start the Series with Flanagan and southpaw Scott McGregor back to back.

At long-range planning, Weaver may be the best. Three times he has coasted to the division flag, and each time his Birds have swept the playoffs in three games.

Nevertheless, when it comes to delicate personal relations -- smoothing the feathers of an umpire or a touchy pitcher -- Weaver tends toward the ultimatum and the sly insult. There was no sufficient reason for Weaver to threaten Palmer with the disabled list.

Even so, Weaver knows his man "Jimmy seems to need an excuse to pitch his best," said one Oriole. "If the odds are against him, and he has his alibi all ready, he's hard to beat."

If Palmer should fail, it is Weaver who will take the heat. And that, ironically, may be the best possible motivation to bring the Hall of Fame best out of Jim Palmer.