Baseball's central character is the pitcher -- the lonely man on the game's only hill. "The fool on the hill," Mike Flanagan calls his position.

The ultimate test for that leading actor in the baseball theater is not the test of skill or the test of wits.

It is the test of courage.

Tonight, in the opener of the 76th World Series, Mike Flanagan of the Baltimore Orioles pitched one of the most courageous games in the history of this classic.

With Pirates surrounding him all night, with his teammates fumbling and failing him at almost every crisis, with the numbing temperatures in frigid Memorial Stadium falling toward freezing, Flanagan beat Pittsburgh, 5-4, on an 11-hitter as homely as it was gorgeous.

The Orioles will try for two straight here at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. The National Weather Service predicts 30 percent chance of rain with temperatures in the high 40s.

By his own account, Flanagan did not bring his best stuff to Memorial Stadium this awful evening. Fortunately for most of the 53,735 fans howling into the breath-filled air, he brought his heart.

Six times Flanagan, a throwback with stubble beard and baggy oldfashioned uniform, walked off the mound after stranding Pirate runners in scoring position. In all, 10 Bucs were left on base -- none more symbolic than the last.

In the ninth, with Dave Parker at third base, Flanagan battled the Pirate captain, Willie Stargell, who had homered off him earlier. With his 138th pitch of the war -- and with his 100th strike -- Flanagan forced Stargell to pop up a jamming fast ball and the Birds could begin their celebration.

"I didn't really sweat much tonight," said the snowpaw who led the major leagues with 23 wins. "That is, until the ninth."

Each team made three errors tonight and played like escapees from a meat locker. Two runs off Flanagan were unearned, and truth to tell, all five Baltimore runs were an embarrassing Pittsburgh gift.

The Bucs, whose infield had supposedly been rebuilt and caulked with trades this season, gave Baltimore a staggering total of nine outs in the first inning with a spectacular collection of defensive blunders -- only two scored as errors.

As a direct result, the O's set a Series record for scoring the most runs in the first inning of the first game of any Series -- five.

That outburst, which culminated with Doug DeCinces' two-run homer, knocked out Pirate starter and loser Bruce Kison in just one-third of an inning. Thereafter four Pittsburgh relievers got the last 26 Oriole outs without allowing a run.

Meanwhile, Flanagan held the fort, throwing fast balls and hard sliders early, then switching to sidearm curves and a tantilizing array of change-ups as his raw stuff disappeared.

"The game changed on me so many times that I lost track," Flanagan said. "It was just one of those battling games when you can't let anything get you down.

"I guess this game shot the lefty-lefty theory (of Baltimore pitching southpaws against the Bucs) all to hell."

Flanagan fought his way through many jams as he left Pirates on second or third base -- or both -- in the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth innings.

Each time, he seemed to have reached his last extremity. Two errors by DeCinces in the sixth set up a two-run single by Phil Garner, byt Flanagan wriggled free, leaving the bases loaded.

Finially, in the ninth, this game had come down to raw nerve. O's manager Earl Weaver -- afraid of Pittsburgh's left-handed pinch hitters, afraid of the frozen stiffness of his own relievers and confident in Flanagan's limitless guts -- let his lefty survive one jam after another.

When, with one out, Parker lashed his fourth hit of the game into center field, Flanagan was back in that ice-water bath of cold tension once more.

Instantly, he picked the huge 6-foot-5, 235-pound Parker of first base.

But this game could not have such a clean and simple denoument. Parker barreled into the fragile O's shortstop, Mark Belanger, with spikes up. Considering the list of broken bones that Parker has left behind on such plays, Baltimore may be lucky that Belanger merely dropped the ball -- or rather, had it blasted out of his glove. Parker has hospitalized a long list of 200-pound catchers -- and they were wearing equipment.

So, Flanagan had to extricate himself from one final jam that was not of his own making.

First, he got cleanup hitter Bill Robinson on a weak grounder to second -- Parker taking third.

Now came the moment of perfect tension. Stargell stepped to the plate.

Just the evening before, while both these teams were in this old park waiting for a rainout, Stargell's hotel hotel room here had been burglarized, with a Pirate captain losing $2,500, three books of unsigned checks, a cassette deck and some clothes.

If Stargell's eyes looked red tonight, it was because he was up most of the night giving information to police.

His long evening against Flanagan had been a minature of the entire game.

Twice, Stargell had fanned on Flanagan's sweeping sidearm curves, contributing to the lefty's total of seven Ks.Once in the fourth, Stargell had hit a one-out dribbler to second to score a run, but also to help Flanagan out of trouble.

Finally, in the eighth, Stargell hit this game's most dramatic blow -- a titanic 400-foot fly ball homer deep into the right field bleachers to shrink what had once be a gaping 5-0 Oriole lead to just one slim run, 5-4.

After that blast, Flanagan had been at his best. When DeCinces, who had an atrocious fielding night -- botching three playable balls -- had lost a chopper in the lights, and a pinch hitter had dumped a handle-hit to right, Flanagan had gotten his favorite pigeon Omar Moreno [zero for five with six runners] stranded to fan.

Now, in the final crisis moment, all the twists and turns of this 3 hour 18 minute marathon came to Flanagan's mind.

"I threw Stargell to many sidearm curves in a row -- three -- in the eighth," Flanagan admitted. "I was determined he wouldn't beat me on anything slow. was going to challenge him."

So, after more than three hours, after batting four times and even running the bases and sliding for the first time in his major league career, Flanagan had to reach back for fast balls to throw a man with 471 career homers.

Perhaps it was those bleary Stargell eyes, up all night. Or perhaps it was Flanagan's long pedigree -- his grandfather who was a professional barnstorming pitcher, and his father who pitched in the minors for Boston.

Whichever, it was Flanagan who was born for this moment tonight.When Stargell pipped that 1-1 fast ball high and harmless to Belanger, another pitcher might have danced a jig.

Flanagan barely changed expressions, just as he never shows up an opponent or belies his true feelings to the foe.

"I'm not too tired," said Flanagan afterward. "I don't feel like I threw 138 pitches. I didnT plan to throw as many change-ups as I did. But I had to get them to stop sitting on (expecting) the fast ball."

As Flanagan marched off, the Pirates were left with one subject for thought in the midnight hours until Thursday's 8:30 p.m. meeting -- Jim Palmer against Bert Blyleven -- that horrid first inning.

It was not Al Bumbry's single on Kison's first pitch or BelangerS walk on four pitches that really hurt.

Even when Ken Singleton hit a perfect one-hop double play ball back to Kison that the sidearmer dropped and turned into just one out, the Bucs weren't really in pain. Actually, Eddie Murray's walk to load the bases looked like strategy.

Strategy that paid off when gimpy John Lowenstein hit another perfect DP ball -- this time to second. But those frozen fingers -- or was it series paralysis? -- came into play.

Garner bobbled the ball, then threw it into left field. Two runs scored. When the ball was returned to the infield, shortstop Tim Foli dropped it, too, missing a chance to nail dead-duck Lowenstein who had rounded first too far.

That Garner flub -- the central blunder of this affair-unnerved Kison. First, he wild-pitched Murray home from third. The, he fell far behing the count (3-1) to DeCinces, who is a dead cripple hitter. An finally, he laid a fast ball down the pipe that DeCinces clobbered 400 feet into the left field bleachers for a 5-0 lead.

As DeCinces, hero of the AL play-offs, became the 15th player in history to hit a homer in his first Series at bat, few guessed which sepentine twists this game would turn. Who knew that DeCinces would give those two runs back with errors -- becoming the first third baseman since 1908 to make two miscues in the same inning.?

But, in the end, all that was window dressing, a necessary preamble to Flanagan's moment of truth against Stargell.

No fool on his hill has ever met that test better.

A young woman was carrying skis while waiting in line at a concession stand. Asked why she was carrying skis around a baseball park, the woman never flinched. "You never can tell about the weather in Baltimore," she said . . . When the teams were introduced prior to the game, two Pirates were not booed: Grant Jackson, a former Oriole, received a round of polite applause: and Stargell, who has reached the point where no one boos him. He received a solid round of applause . . . The Orioles put a nice twist on the first-ball ceremony: instead of having Brooks Robinson simply throw the ball to catcher Rick Dempsey as is traditional, they had him throw it to his successor at third base -- Doug DeCinces . . . The secion 34 zinies were in fine form from the start. They began leading cheers at 8:12 p.m. and let out a rousing "Oh" when Ethel Ennis hit "Oh Say Can You See," in the national anthem . . .