"You gotta like this team. They're loose in the locker room and tight in the dugout." -- Earl Weaver, Baltimore Oriole manager

To know the true depth of the New York Yankees' problem at this hour, you have to sit in the Baltimore Oriole dugout.

The reason the Yanks are so worried is because the Orioles aren't worried at all.

Three Birds -- Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone and Scott McGregor -- are sitting around, idly discussing their fellow pitcher, Jim Palmer.

The question at issue is: at age 35, how much has Palmer got left?

"This season Jimmy is capable of winning eight to 10 games, easy," says Stone.

"Well, I wouldn't go that far. But seven, at the least," says Flanagan. "After Jim won 20 games for the eighth time (in '78), somebody gave him a copy of 'Gray's Anatomy' and he's never been the same. It's tough to adjust to a new injury every start."

"Sports medicine been bera, bera good to Jimmy," says Stone, immitating Chio Esquela.

"Palmer discovers a new cure every week," says Flanagan. "If I call Jim in the offseason and said, 'Hey Cakes, I'm in India. I just found this great guru. My shoulder feels wonderful again,' Palmer would catch the next plane."

"No," corrects Stone. "Jimmy'd say, 'I gotta be on the Today Show this morning, sign some underwear at lunch, but I'll be there for dinner."

To the untrained ear, all this might sound like prickly dissension. Not so. Tone of voice is the issue and Flanagan and Stone are talking about Palmer as they might about a favorite older brother.

Palmer, at present, is one of the Orioles' many heroes. When Stone went on the 21-day disabled list, Palmer responded by inspiring the whole staff by ignoring his maladies and age and pitching three superb games, two of them complete.

Palmer's reward for his distinction under fire is that he is included all the more in the daily round of clubhouse character assassinations that mark the running team.

The hotter and happier a team, the more its players feel free to speak their minds, tease and needle. The more morose a club, the more silent its players become as every animosity is turned inward.

When the Yankees left Memorial Stadium Wednesday after being swept in three games -- 10-1, 6-4, 6-5 -- they were extremely quiet.

The standings say the Yanks are only 3 1/2 games behind the Birds.

Why should Yankee owner George Steinbrenner be standing on his ear, denouncing his players, demoting a pitching coach (Sam Williams) to the minors, threatening his manager with extinction? Why should Gene Michael have to make an overnight trip to Tampa to meet with the owner and defend the managerial moves that Steinbrenner has publicly second-guessed.

Because he knows the gravity of the situation, that's why.

When the Orioles visit Yankee Stadium Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, it will be a "must" series. For the Yankees, that is.

Don't scoff. The exaggeration is mild. No team should be as true to past form as the Orioles are. And that's why the Yankees' near panic in the past week is justified. Since 1977, the O's performance over the first quarter of the season has been a perfect barometer of their record for the entire year.

In odd numbered years, the O's have started fast and had seasons that exceeded their expectations. In '77, they began 25-16, were in first place after 41 games by 2 1/2 games, and shocked the baseball community with 97 wins and a second-place finish. In '79, the Birds began 29-14, were in first place by 3 1/2 games, and ran away, winning by eight games. Now, the Birds are 28-15 again and in first place by three games.

The only times the Birds have disappointed themselves were in '78 and '80 when -- both times -- they began the season 19-22 and fell out of first place by eight and six games, respectively.

Because of this, the Yanks know they must find themselves immediately. It's essential that the O's confidence be depleted, their blithe mood punctured. Even so small a thing as one team winning two out of three this week could prove to be of disproportionate importance. After all, last spring the Yanks won the first four meetings of the season from the O's and it took the Birds another 40 games to get themselves sorted out.

After this week, the Orioles do not face the Yanks again for 16 weeks, until Sept. 24, when the two face each other in seven of the last 10 games. That's a nice psychological edge for an Oriole team that already has won 23 of its last 29 games.

Fortunately for the Yanks, they have suddenly begun to resemble themselves. Jerry Mumphrey, Rick Cerone and Goose Gossage are back in passable health; Bob Watson may not be too far behind.

Nonetheles, Tommy John's back still has him confined to New York for treatment. Ron Guidry is a ticking time bomb as long as his chronically bruised right foot is aggravated every time he must pitch. And what's wrong with Rudy May, shelled in two straight starts, and 20-year-old rookie starter Gene Nelson, who allowed 15 runs in 20 innings before helping shut out Cleveland yesterday?

Whatever their problems, the Yankees have only a matter of hours to solve them. If the Baltimore Orioles leave New York as loose, happy and victorious as when they arrive, the Yankees may have a long, painful wait for Sept. 24 to arrive. And, when it finally does, it could be too late.