When baseball leaves in autumn, it is a great loss.

Some stable piece of our daily lives, a kind of optional pleasure that's available constantly for seven months, is arbitrarily taken away by the calendar. It's not that baseball's always so wonderful; it's just that it's there.

Every life has hollow hours, some more than others. Baseball, depdendably, undemandingly, is there when it is needed, a gentle sustenance that is at its most appealing in both our brightest and bluest moods.

This week, that old friend returned. From now until October, there will be line scores, box scores, stories, columns, radio reports, film clips, radio braodcasts and TV games. But, just as desirable as the accessibility of baseball is the obliging way that the game can leave you alone for days or weeks, then welcome you back. Just check the standings and the averages and you've caught up as through your attention had never been elsewhere.

The multicolored pennants above the old Municipal Field stood at attention in the warm wind off the ocean this afternoon. It was a flapping, cloudless day, perfect for a reunion. Even the players, particularly the Orioles, were beginning to miss the game they had not played for 159 days. t

You can take all the batting, practice you want and run wind sprints in the outfield until you feel blue in the face and pure of heart, but it's not real baseball until you put all the skills together, blend the scattered but interlocking parts of the sport. It's not baseball when you choose up sides and play against yourselves, like the Birds had been doing this week.

For two days, Earl Weaver, getting even antsier than his players, has been advertising his batting order for opening day of the exhibition season, in-toning, "Bumbry, Lowenstein, Singleton, Murray, Crowley and Graham. Six lefties in a row.Oughta be some runs in that lineup."

It might seem a fair assumption that veteran players are bored by these games and indifferent to them, that only eager rookies can keep their eyes open and their attention riveted on Grapefruit inconsequentialities. Not so.

"This is a serious drive toward April 10 (opening day)," said Ken Singleton, one of the veteran Baltimore stars who left the game against Texas (won by the Rangers, 2-1) after five innings and sat in the cool of the clubhouse chatting. "For instance, you'd think I'd be happy about today, since I had a (430-foot) home run and a single.

"But, it's misleading. I'm a good breaking-ball hitter and I got both the hits off curve balls from (Ed) Figueroa. That doesn't prove anything to me. Figgy's getting older and he has to be letter-perfect with his control or he gets rocked. His control can't be sharp yet, so I can't get much satisfaction out of hitting him.

"The time at bat I'll remember from today was striking out (in the first inning) against Danny Darwin. He threw me some real heat and I just flat wasn't ready for it. He taught me what I needed to know. My bat's not quick yet.

"At this time of year, I can already hit the curve ball, but I'm searching for the fast ball. Well, I will see Danny Darwin again and I think he will find out that I'll be more ready."

It might seem excessive that an All-Star player would invest so much interest in one meaningless time at bat in Florida. However, players of Singleton's and (star reliever) Darwin's level of excellence have a professional relationship that extends over years. They study each other, plot against one another, worry about the balance of psychological advantage between themselves.

"Darwin didn't strike me out because he was so fast, but because I was looking for a pitch inside," said Singleton. "(Texas catcher Jim) Sundberg always mixes in one curve ball per at bat against me, like a tease. I thought he might like to come down and in with a breaking ball, to start the year by striking me out on my favorite pitch. That's kind of stuff you can play with down here, mind games when there's nothing at stake."

"That Mario Mendoza (new Texas shortstop) was playing tricks with me," said Al Bumbry, grinning. "One time he'd line up deep in the hole. The next time he'd be way behind second. Well, one time he went in the hole and got me, but the next time, I scotted one up the middle into center on him. If he doesn't think I know where I'm hittin' it, he's crazy. If he keeps cheatin' and giving me big holes to shoot at, I'll keep hitting'em right past him."

As the cream of the 100-win Oriole team -- Singleton, Bumbry, Steve Stone (who gave up one run in two innings), supersub John Lowenstein -- lounged around the clubhouse, waiting for the game to end and the bus to return to Miami, they would occasionally ask a rookie or farmhand, "Hey, what's the score out there?" And the answer would come back, "Just like when you guys left. Texas is still ahead, 2-1."

However, the last time somebody asked that question, the answer was, "We're still down, 2-1, but we got two men on base with one out in the ninth. Krenchicki's up."

A strange thing happened. Veteran players, some with those ugly multimillion-dollar contracts, began scrambling back into their uniforms and clambering out the door so they could peek under the old-fashioned bleacher stands and catch a glimpse of the art bat that might win the game.

They got there in time to see Wayne Krenchicki's check-swing grounder off Ranger rookie Bob Babcock become a game-ending, around-the-horn double play.

As the Birds wandered off the field, the vets were lazy and relaxed, signing autographs, posing for Instamatics.

"Okay, get those cameras ready. Let's not be wasting time," Weaver would crab. Then he would tolerate the millionth strange person throwing his arm around him while his wife clicked the camera. Weaver would smile and say out the side of his mouth, "What the hell have you got a Red Sox hat on for?" And Joe Blow would have his anecdote for a lifetime. r

The Birds fill their bus, the bus that, Weaver says, "waits for no man." The last to arrive is 250-pound reliever Tim Stoddard, who races through the parking lot in his floppy shower clogs that barely cover half his Big Feet. As Stoddaard dodges cars, Weaver covers his eyes. "God," he mutters, "don't do that."

The bus leaves. The crowd leaves. It's all started again. A good friend has returned.