A man in Floyd Rayford's uncertain position will do almost anything to stay in the majors, except what Floyd Rayford actually did for the Orioles very early this morning.

If the batting helmet had not stayed planted atop his head during that pop-up slide, or if White Sox shortstop Bill Almon's hurried throw had been the width of a bird's beak lower, Rayford would have been an unconscious puddle near second base. The mind chooses to ignore some other grim possibilities because, thankfully, he shortly was up and laughing about that weird DH--designated head.

Returning to the scene of the grime, we find: the Orioles and Sox tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning of a game delayed two hours by rain and three outs from being halted by the 1 a.m. curfew. Rayford is pushing those doughboy legs full throttle toward second, trying either to beat the scoop-toss on Rich Dauer's chop close to the bag or break up a double play.

The next three seconds Rayford is down, up and down again. He's out, and he's not out. He arrives an instant after Almon gets the ball from Tony Bernazard; an instant later, Rayford has bounced up off the mud, his head precisely on line with where the shortstop wants to throw.

Sidearm, Almon releases the ball perhaps three inches from Rayford's head. At whatever speed a decent shortstop with not quite enough time to get his entire body cocked can muster, 70 miles per hour or so, Rayford gets conked. Hard enough on the helmet to make him woozy but not senseless; hard enough for the ball to end up about 100 feet away, near the third base foul line; hard enough for Dauer to take second.

The Sox argued it was a Floyd ploy, that he interfered with Almon and Dauer should be out.

The Orioles and Rayford called it an accident, with a happy ending.

The Sox fussing ended and Oriole frolic began a few moments later, when Cal Ripken Jr. sent a knee-high change up out of Memorial Stadium and a remarkable number of patient fans home. A one-run homer would have won for the Orioles, so Rayford's heads-up play was not quite cosmic.

Still, ornery and imaginative Bird brains can take anything out of the ordinary and keep a clubhouse alive with cackling for a delightfully long time after such a victory. And when the fellow being picked on is as thick-skinned as he is hard-headed, when he is as popular as Rayford, the players want the darts to be extra sharp.

"His hat size just went from 7 1/2 to 11," yelled Elrod Hendricks.

"Dauer's supposed to sacrifice him to second, but he sacrifices Dauer to second," said Mike Flanagan. "The ol' double-reverse sacrifice."

"If he'd headed it harder, gotten the ball into the dugout," said Ken Singleton, "Dauer could have scored."

Rayford smiled, shook his head and then showered.

"Nothing wrong with him," Flanagan said when Rayford returned to the locker area, "he just took a shower in the toilet."

Just to make certain nothing really was wrong, Rayford said he would stop for X rays on his way home. He laughed at the tired old line a witty, middle-aged Baltimore scribe offered, the one about X rays of the patient's head showing nothing.

"Probably," he said.

Round as an O, Rayford became endangered in Baltimore when pitcher Mike Boddicker reported from Rochester today and nobody was immediately demoted. Sages fingered either Rayford or Glenn Gulliver. The suspense ended last night when Gulliver was sent down to Rochester. Rayford has a near-terminal batting average going against him; going for him are versatility and the facts that he adds a nice blend to team chemistry and the Orioles no doubt facing lots of lefties in the near future.

Rayford is the second third baseman at times, and could be the third catcher in a jam. His extra-inning homer that beat Oakland last week surely will influence Oriole judgment. Before games, Rayford is the one demanding more grounders than necessary, challenging others to fielding games.

He can throw a needle as well as take one.

"Everybody in here has done something wrong," he said. "Believe me." His eyes were dancing with mischief as they scanned each joker. Probably, he was plotting who to pay back, and with how much interest.

Had he time to think before jumping into Almon's line of fire, had he time to weigh whether being heroic for an instant just might be what earned him a stay in Baltimore, Rayford still would not have intentionally sacrificed his head to win a game. Is there a man alive who would?

Yep.

"Hal McRae did it twice against us in one series," said former Washington Senator Dave Nelson, now coaching first for the Sox. Nelson can't be certain the Royal ripper did it on purpose; he does remember the plays, being the Texas Ranger second baseman whose throws to shortstop Toby Harrah triggered McRae's madness.

"He'd gotten hit on the helmet by Jim Bibby the game before, had to be taken out," Nelson said. "Next day he doesn't slide low enough and the throw (to first) bounces off his helmet and into the dugout. That would have been the last out; instead, the runner gets second and later scores.

"Next time (in the next game) the runner runs to second when the ball goes off his helmet. And then scores the winning run. What a series McRae had. Got hit on the helmet three times in all, and also went five for five one game."