The Baltimore Orioles are seeking atonement.

The signs of contrition, the vows of self-improvement were everywhere here today as the ofttimes best darn team in baseball opened its spring training exhibition season.

Most teams, coming off a 59-46 season for the third-best record in the American League, would not think too badly of themselves.

The Orioles think they stank.

Since the final day of the bedraggled, aggravating 1981 season, the Orioles have been making vows and flagellating themselves more than ever before.

Whether hard work and new year's resolutions will suffice juxtaposed with an aging pitching staff and an inexperienced left side of the infield--not to mention the Yankees, Brewers and Tigers--very much remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, the Birds on view here are a fascinating collection of penitents, each blaming himself for the relative disappointments of '81 and promising to make this the season when they fulfill the sense of team destiny that has existed among them since 1977.

Perhaps the most conspicuous manifestation of this Oriole resolve was the sight today of spunky catcher Rick Dempsey batting left-handed. Dempsey formally became a switch-hitter in this afternoon's rookie-infested 7-5 loss to Montreal, popping up against Bill Gullickson.

"Like a lot of guys, I was terrible in the second half," confessed Dempsey, whose .231 mark after the strike outshone the pathetic second-season '81 averages of Ken Singleton (.209), Dan Graham (.109), John Lowenstein (.229), Jose Morales (.152), Cal Ripken (.128) and Gary Roenicke (.191).

Actually, the gung-ho Dempsey batted 34 points higher after the strike than before. But, things like that matter little to him. To Dempsey, it is setting an example that counts.

"I eat, drink and write left-handed," says Dempsey, who worked on his compact southpaw stroke all winter, "and I'm left-eyed."

The whole Oriole lineup this day was a succession of engrossing question marks.

Al Bumbry played left field, the better to hide his weak arm. Ex-Angel Dan Ford played center, part of a spring defensive experiment to see whether he has the concentration and desire to be a quality outfielder.

"I'll play where I'm told to play, even though, of course, I like center field better and feel more comfortable there," said Bumbry. After fizzling to .273 last season, he has worked out even more assiduously than in the past. Today, he hit an almost unbelievable 430-foot home run off Bill Lee over the high scoreboard in right field.

"Put me in left and I become a power hitter," he cracked.

"That and a 35-mile-per-hour wind blowing out," rebutted Jim Palmer, who gave up two runs in three decent innings and pronounced himself in his best shape ever.

Like the entire chastened Baltimore pitching staff, which worked out together all winter, Palmer gave himself his toughest offseason workout schedule, beginning his program while he was still broadcasting postseason games.

"Us old-timers have to do the extra things," said Palmer. He has taken to calling himself "the aging veteran" in hopes that Manager Earl Weaver will--finally--start giving him relief help earlier in games.

Ford batted third and ripped a double over the third base bag and a single through shortstop on the first two pitches he saw as an Oriole.

Rookie third baseman Cal Ripken, fresh from a diligent winter of Puerto Rican ball, began his year by ripping a double off the right field wall in his first at bat. Lenn Sakata, the dubious commodity at shortstop who went to the Instructional League in offseason to bone up, made a first-rate play behind second base.

As though winter ball and instructional leagues and veterans voluntarily playing new positions and rich/famous pitchers throwing throughout the offseason were not proof enough of Oriole earnestness, there is a team-wide trend toward svelteness. Even the rock-hard Dempsey claims to have lost 11 pounds, although it is hard to see what good it might do him.

Singleton, who hardly looked fat, lost 15 pounds as part of his desperately serious offseason conditioning after ending '81 in, by far, the worst slump of his life. In particular, Singleton has rehabilitated the atrophied right elbow that, he believes, was the cause of his collapse.

"I'm hitting the ball hard again right-handed," said the switch-hitter who batted just .238 righty last season with two homers in 108 at bats.

Also looking thin are Graham, Roenicke and Tim Stoddard--the team's resident giants, nicknamed Hippo, Rhino and Big Foot.

Graham was so inoffensive in 1981 (.176, two homers) that owner Ed Williams cracked, "I'm going to send him a map of Rochester for Christmas." The muscular catcher has lost his spare tire, but his short, powerful stroke of '80 is still in absentia and his status here is precarious with Washingtonian Willie Royster, 31 homers and 53 steals at Charlotte, looking over his shoulder.

Roenicke will get one last chance to show his 25 homers of 1979 weren't a fluke. He will get little patience or pampering.

Stoddard, the sometimes too easygoing fat-attack victim of '81 (who went from 26 saves to seven), arrived here in excellent shape and growling about how lousy he was last season. One of Stoddard's new resolutions-- to learn a changeup--has proved costly. This week, he developed "shoulder tightness . . . like (taut) guitar strings in there. I can't get loose."

So much for best intentions. Same with Steve Stone. He has cavorted like a rookie here--and twisted a knee in sprints this week, then yielded four Expo runs in two genuinely ugly innings as today's starter.

As long as Stoddard is okay by opening day, Weaver can wait. He wants a couple of weeks to look at Ross Grimsley (who struck out three in one shutout inning today), Don Stanhouse, Dave Ford and Paul Moskau, all competing for the last one or two spots on the staff.