Ever since they walked off the Memorial Stadium field on Sunday, losers to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Baltimore Orioles have hardly known how to feel.

Should they be proud that they came within one plausible victory of the greatest final-week comeback in the history of 20th Century pennant races? Yes, after considerable archive scrounging, the greatest, bar none.

"They went out and played baseball like I've never seen," said Manager Earl Weaver of his team's comeback. "They can hold their heads up."

Or, should the Orioles feel disgusted with themselves that, in perhaps the most potentially historic game they'll ever play, the club combined bad nerves, bad luck and too many big, bad Brewers into a 10-2 beating?

Should the Orioles be haunted by specific Sunday memories?

General Manager Hank Peters can't forget rookie Glenn Gulliver running head down through a first-inning coach's sign, preventing a bases-loaded rally. "Cal Ripken (Sr.) did everything but tackle him," said Peters yesterday.

Owner Edward Bennett Williams still sees another bases-loaded inning ending with his bulwark, Eddie Murray, grounding out.

Or, on the other hand, should the Orioles have the good grace to look at Robin Yount's two homers and a triple, Cecil Cooper's double and homer, plus a dozen other Brewer heroics, and simply tip their hats and try to forget?

Should the Orioles be delighted that they offered such a struggle to a Brewers crew that, on paper, was clearly their superior? After all, the Orioles outscored the league average by 87 runs, while the Brewers' margin was exactly twice that--174 runs. Traditional thinking says that however many games the Orioles were above .500, the Brewers should have been twice that good.

Or, should the Orioles be angry all winter that, in their season's ultimate game, they lost to a team that they thumped in nine of 13 meetings for the season. Head to head, Baltimore handled the Brewers all year, including five consecutive victories in the last nine days.

Couldn't there be a trace of justice in the Orioles' bitterness that the pitcher who beat them, Don Sutton, was a million-dollar, late-season gamble -- a big-bucks, buy-a-pennant guy. And, to boot, a fellow who was warned during the game for illegal ball-scuffing.

As to the ball-marking, Peters ventured, "I have two more scuffed balls from the game (in addition to the one Sutton was warned for) here on my desk that I'll send to (AL President) Lee MacPhail . . . This isn't sour grapes and I don't want to make a big issue of it, but if Sutton's going to be in our league now, then this business of marking balls is something that we'll need to address in the future."

Should the Orioles savor the affectionate farewell their crowd gave both them and Weaver? "That was the highlight of the last three days. It was wonderful," said losing pitcher Jim Palmer, who was one of the players called back out onto the field for cheers. "You wish you could bottle the feeling it gives you."

Or should the Orioles enter this winter worrying about who will replace Weaver and how he'll fare? Williams and Peters will begin meeting to make this decision on Tuesday. "We have not talked about it yet," said Peters yesterday. "I know some people find that hard to believe, but it's true. We now have to address it. Realistically, there's no need to wait. The list won't grow longer by waiting and it could grow shorter."

Round up the usual suspects -- John McNamara, Ripken, Frank Robinson and Tony LaRussa -- and anticipate a verdict sometime during the World Series fortnight.

Of equal importance, should the Orioles assess their current talent optimistically, giving weight to the success of September, or should the franchise remember the aggravations that led to a 61-57 record on August 19?

Williams, who has a taste for free agents and trades, says, "We still have weaknesses -- short relief, one infield spot (either shortstop or third base, wherever Cal Ripken Jr. isn't playing) and, maybe, one more starting pitcher . . . other teams might be satisfied, but we're supposed to be the best."

Peters, more oriented toward the farm system, says, "It's really strange how in every area where we have needs, we have some excellent young kids coming along, although you can never say that they will do it . . . We need a new manager who understands this club, and its limits, because this isn't a team that needs overhauling."

Perhaps one photograph sums up the Orioles' whole season-ending dilemma of ambivalence. Ben Oglivie has just made one of the best, and most dangerous, outfield catches of the season. Sliding across the foul line, foot and ankle already wedged into the base of the wall, the photo raises many questions. Will this man survive? Will he hold the ball? And, finally, and as it proves, most tantalizingly, was the ball he caught fair or foul?

Oglivie held the ball and walked away.

Replays showed the ball was almost certainly fair by inches. Umpire Rich Garcia said he thought he would have called the ball foul, had a call been necessary.

Perhaps only the Orioles care about whether that fly hit by Joe Nolan was inside, or outside, the foul line. But they definitely do care. If it was fair, then they were robbed of a two-run double that would have put the tying run on second base in the eighth inning of a 5-4 game. In other words, only a great Brewer play kept them from being in the game until the very end, kept them, who's to say, from their 18th come-from-behind victory in 44 games.

If, however, it's just a foul ball, then who cares? Baltimore's just a team that fell behind early and got blown out.

With the morning light, clearer vision has come to the play. If Oglivie had been a step slower, or a step farther out of position, or, most likely, a step less courageous, and the ball had dropped cleanly and untouched, then, almost certainly, Garcia would have seen what TV cameras showed -- that the ball was fair.

Only because the ball was caught, and at the very moment Oglivie was wallowing all over the foul line and doing somersaults in a swirl of dust, was Garcia deceived. In other words, if Oglivie hadn't made the catch, then Garcia probably would have made the "fair" call.

What Sunday's contest showed, far beyond any ambiguity, was baseball's ability to attract, mesmerize and, finally, reward its audience. In such games, even the players are amazed at the game's power over them.

Just when he should have been exhausted, after playing 158 games, infielder Rich Dauer was smiling like a delighted child in the Oriole clubhouse an hour after the defeat. The veteran wandered among his teammates, making sure they all had each other's phone numbers for the winter.

"I can't wait," said Dauer, to no one in particular, "for April 5."