An hour before game time was a bad moment to talk to Doug DeCinces about the pain in his back, about the major surgery he must face to fuse three vertebrae, about the chilling question not at the center of his life: should he play, and if he does, will he end his career?

It was a bad moment, you see, because his painkiller was just kicking in. The third baseman's eyes were drooping and his voice sounded like he had had a couple of beers too many. By the first inning, he would be fine. But now, as his small son played at his feet in the clubhouse, he was half asleep. What he said was honest and simple. But it was said under a kind of duress common to ballplayers during a pennant stretch drive, and particularly common to the Baltimore Orioles at the moment.

"The pain?" said DeCinces, bored by the most common thought in his daily life. "It's where it always is. I can stand that. It's where it starts shooting down my legs that I can't play. Or when I'm so stiff that after the whirlpool, and the heat and the stretching exercises, I still can't get loose.

"When I'm at third and I lean side to side, I can 'pop' my spine just like most people can pop their knuckles, only it's louder and a lot scarier.

"I never know when it's going to hit me. It's gotten me just running in the outfield or pulling into a base. It's like somebody stabbed me in the back. I can't do anything for several days."

DeCinces was told five weeks ago that he would have to have the doublefusion surgery, that his recovery period would be six months, and that, although the odds were in his favor that he would come back, it was far from certain. "Of course it's not sensible for me to be playing," said the American League player representative. "I'm the one who's gambling and sacrificing, not the club. I have a contract through 1983 (reportedly for $1 million over three years,) but if I can't play, you know I'm not going to get paid.

"Playing hurt is part of this particular club. I saw Mike Flanagan keep going out there for half a season with both ankles swollen so he hopped after every pitch. When he came back the next year and won the Cy Young, saw how happy it made everybody and how much they wanted to help him get it after what he'd been through. I hope when I'm healthy again someday the guys appreciate what I tried to do this year and are happy for me.

"The idea is winning, I guess," said DeCinces, who has hit .210 since learning that surgery was a certainty, but deciding to play, anyway. "But the idea does keep coming back to me. You only get one body."

Manager Earl Weaver says that his roster card lists only two types of players: "The living and the dead."

"I assume that they can play unless they tell me otherwise," he said. "If you can, then you're alive. If you can't, you're dead."

That is why the Orioles' infield sometimes looks like the Night of the Living Dead when four hard-noses -- Rick Dempsey, Rich Dauger, Kiko Garcia and DeCinces -- all hobble out together with their bad backs, bone bruises from foul balls and assorted pulled hamstrings.

"This team has a lot of quiet guys who don't raise a lot of hell about how much pain they have," said Coach Frank Robinson, the prototype. "The fans don't know. These guys shouldn't

"Kiko is probably in as much pain right now as any player I've seen. He has a terrible chronic back, plus a badly bruised foot, but he has to play every game because (Mark) Belanger is hurt even worse (bruised ankle). He moves like somebody hit him in the back and the leg with a bat," said Robinson. "kiko will lie to you, make up stories . . . anything to play. He would play dead.

"Dempsey's even worse. If you chained up that little SOB, he'd break the chains to play. (John) Lowenstein is the worst. I don't even put him in the same category because he's definitely crazy. He was on the disabled with a bruised hip, from running into a wall, that was so ugly you couldn't even look at it. The first game back from the DL, he runs into a wall to catch a foul ball with us five runs ahead and they have to carry him off on a stretcher -- same hip.

"On this team, even the pitchers are tough," said Robinson in a rare concession from a former everyday player. "Flanagan and (Scott) McGregor just keep taking the ball. If they can walk out there, they pitch."

"I feel pretty good right now. Not as bad as a lot of times," Garcia lied this week. Would he tell Weaver the truth, if it might take him out of the lineup? "I wouldn't tell him anything," said Garcia, " and I never will."

Plenty of nights on the road, I practically have to drag Dauer back to the room, he's so stiff and bent up," said Flanagan. He just sleeps all day the next day until it's time to go to the park."

"All this 'blood-and-guts' is okay," said Weaver, "and I appreciate it. I played that way. Everybody has. But I also appreciate honesty and a player who can give me an accurate evaluation of what he can do -- Belanger, Singleton, Murray are like that.

On every issue there must be a minority report. And on the Orioles, that means the Palmer Report. "Oh, yeah, sure, Earl wants everybody to use good judgement and not play when they're too hurt," said a laughing pitcher Jim Palmer. "That's what he'd say."

All season, Palmer has begged Weaver to take him out of games more quickly in the late innings when his stiff back tightens up. "That's the whole problem between Earl and Jim," said Coach Ray Miller. "Earl wants him to be a 'finisher' like he always was, and Jim thinks, with his age and his back, that he isn't anymore."

All the evidence is that Palmer is one player who should not follow the Oriole pattern of playing when the pain starts. This season, in his 27th starts, Palmer has a runs-against average over the first six innings (when he still feels loose) of 3.16. His runs-against average from the seventh inning onward is an unbelieveable 9.49 -- three times higher. In the 23 Palmer starts in which he has reached the seventh inning, the figures are even more dramatic -- a runs-against average of 2.51 for the first six innings, but 9.51 thereafter.

"Show that to Earl," said Palmer, vindicated.