Five years ago, I wrote that a ticket to see the Baltimore Orioles play in Memorial Stadium was the best bargain in baseball. It was not only one of the best buys in all of sports but in all of entertainment.

Now I've got to retract my compliment.

Since that recent and innocent time, an average Oriole ticket has risen by 120 percent and has gone from a bonanza to a budget-buster. The famous 85-cent Baltimore bleacher perch is dead and gone forever; the cheapest seat for an adult in the joint now costs $4.25.

Once, the Orioles were the game's most fan-conscious organization -- one that bragged about having the best seats for the lowest prices anywhere. Now, the Orioles have moved, at a rapid pace, into the upper half of baseball's ticket-price class. No team has jumped its prices as fast as Baltimore since '79, when Ed Williams bought the club -- a 54 percent increase.

This dramatic ticketflation is not merely a sign of changes in Oriole thinking and ownership; rather, it is symptomatic of the most lasting change that has arrived because of baseball's free agent era.

A sport that once directed its ticket prices, its advertising and its merchandising approach toward the family, the blue-collar worker and the entire spectrum of the middle class now has felt itself forced to move uptown and upscale.

The game sees itself as more hip, richer and more glamorous now, with its millionaire players and slick television ads. But it also may be pricing itself into a dark age. Owners weep about salaries, but, as anyone could have guessed, the cost has been passed on directly and immediately to the consumer.

The proof is as simple as the price of a seat in Memorial Stadium. In just five years, we've gone from the day of the $1.50 general admission and $2.50 reserved seat to the ugly new world of the $8.50 box seat and the $5.50 upper deck seat that requires binoculars.

The Orioles' Christmas gift to their fans last week was the news that, for the sixth straight year, they were jacking up prices.

In '76, the average ticket price in Memorial Stadium was $2.57.

Now the average Bird billet in '82 will cost $5.65, up 64 cents from '81.

Since '76, that's your 120 percent increase.

Just as interesting is the way that the rate of Oriole escalation has doubled since the day Williams bought the team and, concurrently, the club's traditionally public books went private.

In the final two years when Jerry Hoffberger owned the Birds ('78-'79), the average ticket price rose 57 cents, from $3.13 to $3.70. That's an 18 percent hike over those two seasons. Putting it another way, from '74 through '78, Hoffberger's ticket prices went up 44 percent in five seasons.

In short, the Orioles were keeping pace with national inflation.

Since Williams bought the team in '79, an additional $1.95 has been tacked onto the average ticket price -- a 54 percent leap.

In other words, Hoffberger increased the ante about 8 to 9 percent per season. Williams has been upping the tariff by 18 percent per season.

For comparison, the average price of a major league ticket in '81 was $4.99, compared to the Orioles' $5.01. However, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn predicts an industry-wide increase of only 4 percent in ticket prices for '82; Baltimore has increased its prices by 13 percent, thereby moving into the game's upper echelon.

How do the Orioles, who have been almost inactive in the free agent market, justify such prices, especially since Williams arrived?

After all, the Orioles never have signed a free agent for more than $250,000 a year. Other clubs have shelled out millions.

The Orioles' rationale resembles that of any other club.

"In the last six years, our operating costs have gone up 153 percent," says General Manager Hank Peters. "Everyone talks about increased player salaries, but inflation has driven up our player-development costs by $1 million a year and our airplane travel costs have more than doubled. The whole economics of the game have changed."

The Orioles will try to counter-balance price increases with bargains such as next season's three-buck night. All teams have such gimmicks. "If the fan is willing to shop for a bargain, he can find it," said Peters.

The best offseason news Peters sees is that those multimillion-dollar, multiyear player salaries have leveled off in amount per year while decreasing in length of contract.

"People in management have finally been educated by experience," he says. "It was just a case of how long we had to be hit over the head."

Williams defends his prices simply: "We added up our costs and projected what attendance we could expect. Then, we budgeted a break-even scale (of ticket prices), based on our estimate of an '82 attendance of 1,750,000. Our price increases were scaled just so we could break even in '82. I've never budgeted a deficit in any business and I'm not going to start.

"In calculating our costs, we did not factor in one cent for interest (on Williams' high-interest loan to buy the team), depreciation or amortization."

As for the future, Williams says, "I inherited my radio and TV contracts. They'll be renegotiated after '82. And, in '83, we'll definitely have a cable TV deal."

Williams points out that when Hoffberger ran the Orioles, free agents like Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich and Wayne Garland were not re-signed. "Since I arrived, we've kept our roster intact," said Williams.

When other teams raise ticket prices -- notably the Yankees -- they assuage fans by spending to get conspicuous free agents. Williams, too, has mouthed that policy. But nothing has happened.

"I'm still committed to that," said Williams yesterday. "We're in there right now."

Told that only Jackson would fill such a free agent bill, Williams said, "I repeat, we're in there."

"I talked to Reggie's agent yesterday," said Peters. "We're one of the final four teams he's considering. Now that the Yankees have (free agent) Dave Collins, you wonder where they'd play everybody if they did re-sign Reggie . . . In the next two weeks or so, we'll find out something about the character of the man (Jackson). He says he's interested in location, money and competitiveness.

"Well, if he ends up not staying in New York, he can't have them all. California has the location. Atlanta has the biggest salary and the TV tie-ins. And we have the quality team and the rivalry with the Yanks.

"I think we could find a place in the middle of our lineup for (Ken) Singleton, (Eddie) Murray and Jackson."

When Jackson asked the Orioles for a contract in '76, he wanted $1.25 million for five years. The Birds, with their wonderful 85-cent bleachers, couldn't afford a $250,000-a-year player.

It probably cost them a couple of world titles.

Now, Jackson probably would sign for what Ron Guidry got with New York -- $1 million a year for four years. Mention those numbers to the Orioles and they shudder. Baltimore charges modern prices at the gate, but it still won't pay the going rate for a Hall of Famer.

Once, the Orioles had an excuse for losing Jackson. Now, they don't.

They should give their fans a New Year's present.

A Reggie bar.

No matter the cost.