When Edward Bennett Williams thinks about his Orioles on the eve of spring training, he feels the same mixture of delighted anticipation and vague worry that characterizes many devoted Bird brains.

On one hand, Williams talks enthusiastically about the Dan Ford trade, about the arrival of third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. and about his sense that Oriole fans have forgotten "the abortion of '81" and are salivating for baseball.

On the other hand, he says, "I'm not a Pollyanna." He acknowledges that his club would not have spent months in ultimately futile pursuit of Reggie Jackson and Garry Templeton if he had believed his team was free of weakness. "To say those weren't disappointments would give the lie to all the efforts we made," he said.

Williams, like many others, senses that the Orioles--for 25 years the most predictably excellent franchise in baseball--are teetering between excellence and erosion.

Balancing on a financial knife's edge, Williams is tormented by profligate spenders such as California's Gene Autry, captor of Jackson. "Autry seems to be running a retirement farm out there," Williams said. "He's become the Tom Yawkey of the West . . ."

Even his hometown of Washington bedevils him. Williams can't create a true regional franchise, a rich radio-TV market and an optimum cable TV deal as long as "Washington fans resist adopting the Orioles as their home team."

Williams seldom kids himself. Of the bleak prospect of losing Earl Weaver as manager, Williams says, "He's serious about quitting (after this season) . . . It should help that he'll have all those natural motivations to go out with his flags flying high."

But isn't the damage of losing Weaver greater than the short-term hope that the Orioles will win one for the bleeper?

"Maybe we can arrange a sabbatical," he replied, dodging the question.

Then how do you get a top-flight manager for just one year?

"You don't," he said, facing facts.

On balance, however, as pitchers and catchers report Friday to Miami, the Orioles still appear solid. What other team can chose from three Cy Young Award winners, a 20-game winner, last season's victory leader and the rightful earned-run champion?

So, mostly, Williams sees sunny skies.

Above all, the Ford-for-Doug DeCinces trade is just what the lawyer ordered. "We really solved a problem," Williams said, chuckling. The deal added speed to the outfield, slugging to the batting order and opened third base for Ripken, of whom Williams said, "Our people think he will be a superstar . . . I think he's ready."

The thought of Ford and Ripken hitting behind Ken Singleton and Eddie Murray gets the boss excited. "It should really help the 'O-fence,' " he said. With New York's trading for speed, Williams now may have the force on his side. A homer a day keeps the Yankees at bay?

Also, the swap enabled the action-hungry Williams to fulfill his promise that he wouldn't stand pat. Nothing concerns him more than the team's attendance. Quoting a fan's poem ("Casey at the Bank"), Williams concluded, "It's not how you play the game that counts, it's how you count the gate."

Before the strike, Oriole crowds were at an all-time high; afterward, they slipped steadily toward Bal'mer's pre-1979-80 apathy until, by September, Memorial Stadium provided all the thrills 'n' chills of a public library.

"There was tremendous enthusiasm for our off-season caravan . . . not one mention of the strike. It's forgotten," predicted Williams. "In the second half, we paid a price because we didn't sugarcoat the 'second season.' We said it was a bad idea. But, by being honest, I think we defused the bitterness."

Williams has one criticism of his organization: "If we have any deficiency, it's that we have not promoted the team well enough."

To improve that, Williams has a plan and a hope. The plan is to horn in on the cable TV dollar. "We've already been working on putting together a possible cable package of home games," he said, with 1983 the target date.

However, part of the key to making pay TV lucrative also is the key to improving the Orioles' lean and hungry radio-TV package: uniting Baltimore and Washington into one market that would be "the fourth-largest market in the country."

However, Washingtonians won't cooperate. "We try to build our support from Washington," said Williams, but added that team officials expect only 13 percent of attendance to come from this area. "What hinders it is the resistance of Washington fans to adopt the Orioles as a home team," said Williams, perplexed at such obdurance.

Williams' concern over Washington is compounded by his fear that the era of the small city as home of a baseball champion is dying. Since 1969, modest-sized Baltimore, Oakland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Kansas City have won 26 division titles. That, Williams fears, is a thing of the past.

"The (prices of) re-signings have been astronomical," he said. "The money centers of the game are becoming the artistic centers of the game."

To Williams, the case in point is Jackson. Oriole front office veterans wanted to offer Jackson a two-year deal. Williams said he would go three. The Angels offered four. Goodbye, Reggie.

"We didn't think Jackson could play the outfield for four more years. By '84, we'd have been paying both Kenny (Singleton) and Jackson to DH (be designated hitters)," Williams said.

Unlike the Yankees and Angels, the Orioles can't stockpile, buying two players to ensure one will work out. Every Oriole dollar must pay proper dividends. An extra million-dollar year for Jackson is beyond what the Orioles perceive to be their margin for financial error.

Since 1960, and, particularly, in the past five years of lunacy, the Orioles have represented what was sanest and savviest in their game. As a result, owning the team has become a kind of baseball trust, akin to being curator of a small but exemplary museum.

The Bird gallery has no marble pillars. Nor does it buy a Fragonard at auction for millions. Rather, it continues to hang its old masters and its new discoveries side by side--a Palmer here, a McGregor there--in the confidence that quality endures. Immune to fad, it stands for that true proof of sincerity: craft. Maintaining this modest baseball museum is a test of taste and patience--a test even the Orioles don't know if they can continue to pass.