Baseball's winter meeting began to perk today. Within the next 24 hours, it may come to a boil.

First, a free agent was signed. Chronic sore-arm reliever Bill Campbell of the Boston Red Sox agreed to a $1.2-million, three-year contract with the Chicago Cubs.

Next, a significant, though hardly earth-shaking trade was made. The Cubs sent Mike Krukow, their best starting pitcher (a dubious distinction), plus a player to be named later, to the Philadelphia Phillies for the modest threesome of promising catcher Keith Moreland (.255) and pitchers Dickie Noles and Dan Larson.

For spice, a flashy, but false, rumor ran head on into reality. Monday, a wire service reported that the New York Yankees would resurrect Gene Michael as manager; today, the uncooperative Yankees announced that Bob Lemon (minus 24 pounds) would return for one final year as manager.

And, finally, a free agent's lawyer issued an eye-catching ultimatum. John Schneider, representing Yankee Ron Guidry, said that New York owner George Steinbrenner had until Thursday to come up with a five-year, $7.5-million contract offer or else find himself eliminated from consideration for Guidry's services.

"We've had solid offers from 13 teams. Ron now has perfectly acceptable alternatives to playing for the Yankees," said Schneider.

Despite all this, every big league executive has his eye on the same watched pot: the potential blockbuster trade between Baltimore and the St. Louis Cardinals in which the Orioles might get both Garry Templeton and Sixto Lezcano for Mike Flanagan or Sammy Stewart, plus another quality player or two, such as Doug DeCinces and Gary Roenicke.

For two long days, Oriole General Manager Hank Peters and his counterpart with the Cardinals, Whitey Herzog, have been chewing over the permutations of this possible trade. "Hank and I both have cauliflower ears," said Herzog. "We've talked and talked," said Peters, "and we'll talk some more."

Until the Orioles and Cardinals either make their trade, or give it up as impossible, this winter meeting will have difficulty coming to a bubble. All-star players such as Dave Parker of Pittsburgh and Roy Smalley of Minnesota definitely are on the trading block. But everybody with a quality player to offer -- from Bob Knepper to Ozzie Smith -- wants to deal that player for the vastly talented but hopelessly-in-the-doghouse Templeton.

"We're all waiting for a short sequence of things to fall in place," said Peters. "Then everything will probably break loose."

At present, the stumbling block to a whole sequence of deals is the Cardinals' disdain for any shortstop in the Baltimore organization. Peters mentions Lenn Sakata or Bobby Bonner as part of a trade and Herzog just laughs; he probably wouldn't want either or both, not even as a throw-in.

"Whitey thinks he needs a quality shortstop in hand before he'll deal Templeton," said Peters, who, along with everyone else, believes that Herzog's first choices would be Ivan DeJesus of the Cubs and Ozzie Smith of San Diego.

But Herzog hasn't been able to land that shortstop. The Orioles have offered to work as intermediaries in a three-way deal, trading for a DeJesus or Smith, then, in turn, dealing him for Templeton, but Herzog has declined the offer.

To say that the Orioles covet Templeton would be a gross understatement.

"Temple's range at shortstop is almost beyond description . . . I can't find words for it," says Oriole superscout Jim Russo. "Sometimes he's nonchalant and makes errors, but he also makes an incredible number of plays that are just beyond belief. He's one of the absolute finest talents I've seen in 30 years in baseball."

Of Templeton's reputation as one of baseball's most moody and troublesome players, Russo says, "You can't run away from players with problems if they have this kind of talent . . . This is what we pay managers for. Also, the Baltimore clubhouse has a lot of good people in it who have helped young players in the past."

The Orioles do not want Lezcano nearly as much as they do Templeton, but they still are very high on him, despite his plummet to a .266 average this year.

Baltimore needs players with raw athletic ability who can give it a better balanced team: one with speed at the top of the lineup, a rifle arm in the outfield and defensive range. The Orioles don't want to be just fundamentally sound. They want to be spectacular occasionally, too. And that's what Templeton and Lezcano offer. Both are young, moody and gifted. They cry out for just the sort of teaching and guidance the Orioles can offer.

Traditionally, Baltimore has been a patient team that almost always did the hornswoggling in trades. "We're cautious and only deal from strength, not desperation," Peters reaffirmed today.

Nevertheless, a new factor has been added to the equation: owner Edward Bennett Williams, who has gotten into baseball for the thrill of the hunt. It's in his nature to want action and to enjoy the challenge of a gamble. So far, the Orioles, with typical patience, have only made one transaction, acquiring obscure AA left-hander Carlos Cabassa.

"Well, we won't come away empty-handed," Peters said wryly, with old-Oriole calm.

"I'm thrilled with Cabassa," Williams said, sardonically.

New owners are historically hot to make trades, to get the blood up. Often, they end up bloodied.

Until the trading logjam is broken, if it ever is, these meetings will remain an unlikely combination of tension and boredom. Executives scurry through the corridors, suites, bars, lounges and ballrooms of the gaudy beach-front Diplomat Hotel trying to drum up a trade or corner a free agent's lawyer. It's like an old Marx Brothers comedy, full of goofy characters popping in and out of rooms, pursuing each other hither and thither.

For the moment, everybody here is listening for the same thing: that loud whistle that means a very large pot has just reached its boiling point.