Baseball has a record for everything. The new mark for Least Auspicious Debut by a Manager is now held by Joe Altobelli of the Baltimore Orioles.

No amount of goodwill is sufficient to resist the temptation to make sport of Altobelli's misfortune at a Baltimore banquet three weeks ago.

Altobelli was next in line to make a speech. Then, it was decided that retired Orioles manager Earl Weaver should speak before the man who replaced him.

As Altobelli tried to make room for Weaver to pass on the narrow, elevated dais, he pushed his chair backward. What Altobelli thought was a solid wall turned out to be a thin black drape. His chair legs went over the precipice and Altobelli was launched backward through the drape and into the noisy blackness below.

Altobelli fell five feet and was shaken badly enough that he immediately left the banquet for X-rays at a hospital. As Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams noted, if the man sitting next to Altobelli--Bill Terry, 84--had taken the same fall, "he could have been killed."

On the other hand, Altobelli is 50 and looks like he was constructed by the same company that built Fort Knox. Basically, he wasn't hurt.

"That was kinda funny," said Altobelli, when the Orioles' winter caravan came to Washington this week. "Now, I'm on a streak. This is the fourth banquet in a row where I haven't fallen off the dais. Of course, the first two don't count 'cause they handcuffed me to the head table."

Asked if he'd do anything differently if he had that night to relive, Altobelli says, "Instead of getting up and saying I was okay, I should have laid on my back and moaned and sued 'em."

Altobelli can be sure of one thing. When he gets to Miami in two weeks for spring training, he'll have the only seat in the dugout that's equipped with a seat belt.

"Some people think," said owner Williams conspiratorially, "that Earl pushed Joe."

"Sure Earl pushed him," says Al Bumbry, furthering the instigation. "He wants to come back already."

It's probably an extremely good sign for the Orioles that Altobelli is so hard to embarrass, that he has such a quiet, secure sense of himself that he can joke about his pratfalls. There's no way he can escape being compared with Weaver.

If Altobelli nicks himself shaving, he'll be asked if it was a suicide attempt; and the first time the team loses two in a row, Williams will be asked if he's spoken to Weaver recently. Altobelli might as well get used to laughing off the small stuff, because he's accepted a job with plenty of built-in annoyances.

Altobelli's reactions to the banquet incident probably give as good a reading on him as anything he'll do in a game. His first instinct, even though he had a numb tailbone, a crick in his back and a week's supply of bruises, was to ask if he couldn't just get back in his seat and give his speech when his turn came.

"I did not feel embarrassed. More disappointed. Then, I realized it was almost midnight and the people were probably ready to go home, anyway, so I doubt if they cared much that I didn't say anything."

However, the team's doctor and trainer were, naturally, in a fair fit to get him to a hospital. "I didn't want to offend Dr. Wallenstein and (trainer) Ralph Salvon. They wanted to get me X-rayed and I knew they were probably right, so, what could I say? I went to the hospital."

Altobelli's ballplayers from past seasons say he's strong and soft-spoken, slow to anger but spectacular when he's in high dudgeon, considerate of others and open to suggestions from anyone inside his organization.

Already, in his pratfall, Altobelli has shown a sort of engaging humility and self-deprecating humor that Weaver never had. Plenty of feathers have been ruffled beneath the surface of the placid Orioles in recent years; few players will miss Weaver in any specific sense--he didn't manage for their favor. By contrast, there will be several Terry Crowleys and Dan Ford and Tim Stoddards who will be delighted with the chance to start fresh.

"Despite his strengths, Earl didn't take advice particularly well, even from his coaches," said Williams this week. "For instance, I think (pitching coach) Ray Miller will have more input."

Even an owner may get to make a suggestion or two without getting the fish eye.

"April so often seems to kill us. We get off to a bad start, like 2-10 last year, and everybody says, 'Don't worry, don't worry. We'll be there at the end.' But we come up a little short," said Williams. "If we'd played .500 for the first dozen games last season, we'd have had a four-game lead on the Brewers going into the final game of the season . . .

"I think maybe the answer is something that has never been tried," said Williams. "Between the bad weather and the off dates, there are all these cavities in the schedule in April. Our rotation never gets in rhythm.

"What if we left a couple of our starting pitchers in the South during April, let them work in turn down there, pitching to live hitters in the winter-league camps," said Williams, "then bring them back up if we could work them in for a start, then send them back where it's warm again.

"That way, the whole staff could get as much the work as it needs and maybe we wouldn't have to wait until June to get rolling."

A certain former manager, who didn't like owners giving clubhouse pep talks or having too many brilliant ideas, might not have warmed to such an unheard-of notion. Leave a Cy Young winner or two in Florida? Balderdash!

"It's an interesting idea," said Joe Altobelli. "I'm thinking about it."