Joe Altobelli, introduced today as the Baltimore Orioles' new manager, was asked whether he knew where the ulnar nerve was located.

He paused for a moment, knowing that the most notorious ulnar nerve in baseball belonged to Jim Palmer.

"It starts in the arm," said Altobelli, "and ends up in the head."

What did Altobelli learn from his three years as manager in San Francisco?

"Stay out of San Francisco," he shot back. "I went from the sublime to the ridiculous there. And I'm hoping to go back to the sublime here."

Did he ask for a two-year contract here?

"No, I asked for about eight (years)," said Altobelli, grinning.

What are his goals for 1983?

"I figure 103 (victories) will do it next year, but Mr. Williams (team owner Ed Williams) wants us to win 105, so, maybe we can compromise on 104."

Would he espouse the "Earl Weaver philosophy" of three-run homers?

"That's not a manager's philosophy," replied Altobelli, "that's a manager's dream."

This guy has been practicing.

Any fears about deterioration in the quality of the quips from the Oriole manager's office were, to a degree, allayed today as Altobelli began a two-year term in office with a press conference worthy of predecessor Earl Weaver.

Six years ago, when Altobelli was introduced as the new boss of the Giants, the press conference broke up with laughter. Many assumed the Giants' owner had merely mispronounced the name of the leading candidate, Joe Amalfitano.

"Nobody knew me," Altobelli said today. "I could have put a camera around my neck and stood with the media and not been noticed."

This afternoon in Memorial Stadium, when Altobelli was brought to the podium, he was greeted with smiles and cheers, many from friends of nearly 20 years.

The Orioles, you see, are convinced they've replaced an Earl with a prince. A prince of a fellow, that is.

Whether the strapping Altobelli can fill Weaver's tiny shoes as a manager is a question best left to time. However, he was received back into the Orioles' nest this day with as much affection as attended Weaver's departure last month.

Seldom has a new manager taken over a high-powered club with such old-shoe ease as Altobelli showed. "Here I stand," he said quietly, slowly. "I think I'm well qualified to manage the ballclub. I've had a lot of the players play for me in the past. I worked with all of the coaches. I know all of the front office. I even know the groundskeeper . . ."

The Orioles couldn't have handed their managerial job to a man whose personality and manner are in more complete contrast to Weaver's. That hardly can be an accident. If Weaver was irrascible, puckish and bristling with cocky intelligence, then the modest Altobelli's brand of baseball wisdom is much milder, easier to take.

"I just want to keep the show going," he said. "I couldn't be happier coming back to . . . the organization that got me started. It took a little while. Maybe more than I thought it would take, but I finally got here."

"Earl definitely wanted to be the dictator," summarized pitcher Scott McGregor, who, along with Mike Flanagan, Eddie Murray, Rich Dauer, Dennis Martinez, Jim Dwyer, Al Bumbry, Terry Crowley and coach Ray Miller have played for Altobelli. "Joe doesn't overmanage. He's there with the right word at the right time."

"Following in Earl's footsteps is not going to be easy," said Altobelli, who said he learned of his selection more than a week ago. ". . . (But) there are worse situations, I might add . . . like a bad ballclub. Now that would be pressure . . . a good ballclub is really all a manager can ask for.

"I'd like to say it was like a dream come true, but I'm 50 years old. I've been in baseball for over 30 years. And even though I'm very, very excited, I know that . . . what lies ahead of me is a lot of hard work . . .

"When you're managing you've got a lot of people looking over your shoulder . . . If I want anybody to look over my shoulder, I'd certainly like it to be a good baseball man. That's what Earl is. If he's gonna look over my shoulder, hopefully, he'll give me the advice that I really need."

Despite Altobelli's protestations that "Earl and I have never had a harsh word, and that's gospel," it is common knowledge throughout the Orioles' organization that the two, while not enemies, have not been friends since the mid-1970s when Altobelli was doing the looking when Weaver's job was in jeapordy.

Weaver frequently has said that he hopes he can visit the Orioles in spring training, and during the season, "just dropping into the manager's office for a beer."

"That's not going to be so easy for Earl now," one veteran Oriole said. "Hiring Joe certainly puts more distance between Earl and the club. If they'd wanted Earl to stay close, they'd have hired Cal Ripken."

Altobelli, who wants to keep the coaching staff intact, freely admitted he has had his eye on the Orioles' job, when Weaver retired, ever since he was fired in San Francisco.

"I really felt that when I first went to New York (as third base coach in 1981) I was going to be there just two years, because I was going to get experience in the American League and something like this was going to happen," he said. "Earl was going to retire and I was going to get the job . . .

"After two years in New York (with the Yankees)," he quipped, "I think I'm ready for anything."

In one area, Altobelli may resemble Weaver: he holds few grudges, forms his judgments of players' personalities slowly and, while sometimes paternal, isn't buddy-buddy with players.

"I don't think it's a compliment when a player says, 'He's a nice guy to play for.' That doesn't come out right, somehow," said Altobelli, whom the Orioles bought as a player from the Dodgers for $500 in 1964. "In the minors I had a love-hate relationship with my players. I love none of 'em. I hate none of 'em."

Perhaps the most businesslike appraisal of Altobelli came from close friend Miller, who was "discovered" as a pitching coach by Altobelli. In the next few days, Miller may be offered the job managing the Oakland A's and have to decide whether to leave the Orioles.

"If I have that choice," Miller said today, "I will make it on the assumption that Joe Altobelli will be the Orioles' manager a lot longer than two years. Just watch. He's going to do a helluva job."