Baseball's inner circle of players, managers, coaches and general managers returned to the stadiums of the major leagues today in a mood that combined relief, chastened happiness, shame and sorrow.

With a stinging sense of lost innocence and neglected stewardship, these men who are at the core of the game began the task of sifting the rubble of their bitter asterisk season to see what might yet be salvaged, if not truly saved.

"The cost is so tremendous, and so long-range, that you can't begin to measue it in dollars," said an exhausted, depressed Hank Peters, Baltimore general manager. "If we ever let this happen again, kiss it goodbye."

In a mood of weariness uncharacteristic of baseball, each person began analyzing his own self-interest in the aftermath of the strike, trying to see what tarnished satisfaction could still be gained from this unraveled year.

Which teams have the easiest remaining schedules, the most home games?

Which clubs, by age or style or play, are best suited to capitalizing on the seven to eight weeks of baseball that remain?

Which red-hot June teams, like St. Louis, will have to restart their motors and which injury-decimated clubs, like Baltimore, have had a chance to heal and start fresh?

And perhaps more far-reaching, what decisions will be made at Tuesday's owners meeting in Chicago to determine what, if any, changes will be made in the format of the remainder of the season and playoffs?

That is to say, will baseball's already dazed fans see arbitrarily crowned "first-half champions" and "second-half champions"? This seems most likely. Or will baseball get a one-season-only dose of wildcard teams? Will an extra tier of playoffs be introuduced? And, if so, which of several widely differnt plans -- each inevitably favoring certain teams -- will win the day?

Baseball has gone from 50 days of catatonic boredom to a sudden fortnight of madness in which players will have to triple-time to get back in shape while front-office types will be fighting for novel advantages that are new to the suddenly upside-down game.

The Orioles find themselves at the center of almost every one of these questions.

For instances, the O's have the best home-away schedule of any team, playing 31 of 51 remaining games at home.

Other teams with sweet home-away breakdowns include Cleveland (31-22), Minnesota (30-22) and Boston (29-23). At the opposite extreme are Milwaukee (22-31), the Chicago White Sox (22-30), Houston (22-30), Atlanta (22,29), St. Louis (22-29), Kansas City (23-30) and the New York Yankees (25-27).

For example, the O's now have the equivalent of a bonus 11-game home stand while the Brewers (one game behind them in third place in the AL East) must face what is, in effect, an extra nine-game road trip. An additional example of drastic built-in imbalance is that the Brewers have had seven games with Baltimore wiped out.

If, hypothetically, the Birds were to keep the Brewers out of the playoffs by their current one-game margin, who could consider the result fair?

More subtle is the questiuon of what kind of team is suited to this bizarre season. Young or old? Hitting or pitching?

"Young players should bounce back faster," says Peters. "Older teams, like the Yankees, could have trouble getting back in shape. Teams who have prospects ready to come up from the minors (read: Cal Ripken Jr.) may call them up now, since they're in midseason form."

Obviously, pitchers are far more susecptible to injury from a quick return than hitters. Does that mean that the rest of August will be a hitters' month, dominated by teams like Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati and Philadelphia?

Probably no.

"Every year in spring training the pitchers are way ahead for the first couple of weeks until the hitters get their timing," says the Orioles' pitching coach, Ray Miller. "Pitchers will lack stamina, but for the innings that they're out there, they'll be much closer to form than a hitter.

"Figure that pitching will dominate early, especially teams with deep staffs who have long relief men who can work those in-between innings that the starters usually pitch. The No. 1 worry will be overworking the bullpen."

"The biggest question is conditiong," said Peters. "Everybody will hold their breath for Saturday at noon to see what these guys looks like. A lot of managers will know the truth about the rest of the season by Saturday night."

Some teams are, by nature, built for a long season, not a truncated one. Again, the Orioles epitomize the team, with a deep bench and many good starters, that loves the dog days that wear down other clubs. Nobdoy will get burned out this year. Pitching depth may help for a couple of weeks, but, as Peters says, "Pitching depth won't be nearly as important measured over the long haul, because there won't be any long haul."

In the next few days, the hottest topic of baseball discussion will be the format for the rest of the year.

"It's not definate, but I assume we'll end up going for the split season," says Peters, who hates the idea (since it hurts the Birds), but it is nearly resigned to it.

"I assume we'll have a first-half and second-half champion with a playoff between them. I think it's unfair. You're conceding something that wasn't really won.

"And what if one teams wins both halves? Does it get a bye? If it does, then you're punished for winning both halves by having to sit out a week while other divisions play a two-of-three or three-of-five series," said Peters.

If that team doesn't get a bye, then what's the first-half champions's motivation for playing the second half of the season? Does a team bust itself for the last 50 games just to get a one-game home-field playoff advantage, which means next to nothing?

And further tangling matters, if a wild-card team gets into the playoffs, how do you determine which it is? Best overall percentage for the full season? On best combined finish in both halves?

According to the commissioner's office, none of these issues have been seriously confronted, although many possibilities have been discussed.

At least half the teams in baseball care deeply about this.

Th for first-half "winners" (Yankees, A's, Phillies and Dodgers) naturally are passionate for the split season since they would already have won a great prize they never even knew was up for grabs. They'd all be in the playoffs for sure. But the division races are so close that four teams -- Texas, Chicago (AL), St. Louis and Cincinnati -- could, hypothetically, move into first place if they won rainout games from the "first season" that still are scheduled to be made up.

But -- and this is a rich one -- would those games be considered part of the first or second season?

Every team that is 10 or more games out of first place is wildly in favor of a second season since that's their only hope for recouping attendance loses. The most avid of these is defending AL champ Kansas City, which is 12 games behind and probably can forget 1981 unless it gets a split-season reprieve.

All in all, more teams figure to gain attendance with a flukey split season, so that's probably what will transpire. One player concession was that the owners could dream up any gimmick system to make a few bucks.

Under whatever parameters the season resumes, one underpinning of the game will have changed. "Everybody, including the players, suddenly realized how easy it was to live without baseball," said Miller. "It shattered the fantasy that you can't do without the game.

"I can't even honestly say I was happy when I heard it was over. This was all an exercise in terminal stupidity. I don't wanna hear about who won. Nobody won nothin'. Baseball just lost. What's so disgusting is that there's no significant difference between what either side finally got and what they could have settled for by spliting the differance at midnight on June 11th.

"It was all for nothin'."

"This has, in some ways, been the nicest summer of my adult life," said the O's Ken Singleton, with mixed feelings. "I've never spend so much time with my family. I did nothing but watch reruns of me hitting home runs and the team winning. I'd ask the kids, 'Wanna see daddy hit another home run?' And I'd rewind the projector. It's been nice hitting .340 for seven weeks without swinging."

The ease with which baseball slid out of many lives, including those of players themselves, and the extremely modest enthusiasm with which the game returned to consciousness today, may be the most lasting, and bitterest, cost of the year that baseball finally struck out.