Baseball's brass gathered here this week with visions of sugarplums. They left with empty stockings. Santa must think baseball's been naughty, not nice.

Everyone at the game's winter meeting had a list of Christmas gifts, checked it twice. In the end, almost nobody got what he wanted.

Many a team wanted to make a grand-theft trade for one of the disgruntled or discounted players on the block. They had been, until recently, the pick of the glitter.

Instead of heading home with a prize such as Dave Parker, Mike Flanagan, Roy Smalley or Dan Ford all wrapped in ribbon, general managers returned to explain to their teams' fans why they had to settle for Jorge Orta, Rick Sutcliffe, Tom Paciorek or even Carlos Cabanas.

The only megatrade of the meeting, St. Louis' Garry Templeton for San Diego's Ozzie Smith, still is unannounced and tangled in contract red tape. Even that exchange of malcontents was strictly a case of two teams pleading, like Henny Youngman, "Take my shortstop, please." So, they traded problems.

Seldom have so many horse trades -- 16 involving 36 players -- turned out to be swaps of one sway-backed mare for another. Even the Chicago Cubs, who grabbed nine warm bodies, left town dissatisfied; all their new players have one thing in common: they seem eminently qualified for Cubhood.

Those who weren't trade-crazed coveted free agents such as Jerry Remy, Reggie Jackson and Ron Guidry. Those players' agents, in turn, fantasized of fabulous contracts with many a bonus Claus.

Instead, Remy and Guidry probably have started a trend by staying with the clubs for which they played last season, acknowledging that the days of escalating salaries may be over. Guidry's re-signing has not been formally announced, but he has agreed in principle to a contract that will pay him $1 million a year.

"Baseball's management is wising up," Guidry's lawyer, John Schneider, said today. "It's not so much that they're acting collusively as it is that they're finally finding a business footing. You run into 'impact studies' of past free agents and computer printouts. Instead of wheeling and dealing, everybody's got actuarial tables on the life expectancy of a 31-year-old left-handed pitcher. It's gettin' tougher."

The pendulum swings.

Not everyone here was interested in the meat market. Front office wizards arrived with pet brainstorms to push, especially three-division play with wild cards for the 1983 season.

These folks, also, left with tails between legs. Antagonism toward the three-division plans was not, of course, grounded in concern for the game. No, the coolness toward the gimmick was simply based on economic self-interest. The dollars didn't look good enough to enough people. If baseball is lucky, perhaps that greed-first principle will suffice to kill the noxious notion of eight teams in the playoffs.

There even were some owners who arrived here with devilment in their hearts. A lineup of dissident millionaires -- round up the usual suspects -- wanted to put poor Bowie Kuhn's feet to the yule log, then light the fire. Their idea was to grease the skids for an ouster of the commissioner come reelection time in May.

To be sure, these heck-raisers made their inroads: Baltimore's Ed Williams to the executive council, Texas' Eddie Chiles to the Player Relations Committee and Oakland's Roy Eisenhardt to cochairmanship of a 12-owner committee that will spend the next couple of months putting Kuhn, and the role of the commissioner, under a microscope.

Nevertheless, these Kuhn castigators had their plans disturbed. The commissioner was saved from a full-scale embarrassment by the quick work of Los Angeles owner Peter O'Malley. In 1975, O'Malley's father Walter saved Kuhn from a coup with some eleventh-hour vote swapping. This time, it was Peter who called the 3 a.m. war council to muster support for Kuhn.

This was a bad week for Kuhn, who is beginning to have a scapegoat look. The commissioner approached San Francisco Manager Frank Robinson in the lobby one day and said cheerfully, "Heard you got yourself a couple of pretty good pitchers."

"What do you mean?" asked the perplexed Robinson.

"You know. Sorensen and Martinez," said Kuhn, meaning two pitchers recently traded to Cleveland.

"Commissioner," said Robinson, who verified the story, "I haven't been manager of Cleveland since 1977."

Kuhn excused himself quickly.

"Nice seeing you again, Mr. Rozelle," muttered Robinson.

The last time the winter meetings came to Hollywood, in 1975, the week was cheerier. Bill Veeck's purchase of the Chicago White Sox was approved on a Thursday. Friday, Veeck put out a sign, "Open for Business," in the middle of the Diplomat Hotel lobby lounge. With his pegleg up on a table, he haggled in public, making three trades in the last 45 minutes before the Friday-midnight deadline on interleague deals.

This week, that lobby was a sleepy place, full of grumpy general managers, eyes heavy and nerves frayed from staying up half the night on aborted trades.

Most frustrated may have been Baltimore's Hank Peters. While his peers managed to unload an amazing collection of lost baggage, Baltimore couldn't trade Cy Young winners Flanagan and Steve Stone. Everywhere they turned the Orioles were told that their solid citizens were either too old, too injured or both.

Finally, Peters stood in that lobby and gazed at a fake Christmas tree surrounded by fake gifts.

"I don't think," he said, "that any of those packages have 'to Baltimore' written on them."

Twenty-five other clubs felt much the same way.