Last season, Jim Palmer was worried, defiant, silent and grim. At 36, he was an aging future Hall of Famer trying desperately to prove he wasn't washed up. Palmer finished second in the Cy Young voting.

This spring, Palmer is healthy, cheerful, tart and ebullient. The change couldn't be more total. Palmer seems like a man who has had a great weight lifted from his shoulders. About 165 pounds, Palmer would say, unless Earl Weaver has gained a little in retirement.

"Everybody asks me about Earl and I tell 'em, 'I'm not going to knock Earl.' He was a great manager. He was a winner," said Palmer, gesturing expansively to make his point to owner Edward Bennett Williams this week.

"But that doesn't seem to satisfy them. Good Lord, what do they want me to say, that I thought he was a great person?" said Palmer, breaking up with the sort of laughter usually associated with hearing someone propound the notion that the world is square.

For Palmer, this spring training is a reasonable approximation of heaven. Everywhere he looks, he doesn't see Weaver. When he ventures a colorful opinion or gives a State of My Arm message, no small, loud person arrives on the double to give him the horselaugh. Everywhere Palmer looks, there isn't Weaver.

"The only thing I ever asked from Earl was that he treat me the way I would have treated him--that he just be fair and polite and compassionate. Of course, that's just not Earl. That doesn't mean I would rather have had Earl be compassionate and thoughtful, and all those other good things which Joe Altobelli is supposed to be, than be a winner," said Palmer recently.

"I just think a lot of the ways that I acted, and the misunderstandings that came out of it, were caused by Earl Weaver. That sounds like a copout, but it's true," continued Palmer, who had 240 of his 263 career wins with Weaver as manager. "He made everything more difficult than it had to be."

Already, the Odd Couple have had their little spats in the Miami press. "Palmer's going to win," said Weaver to the Miami Herald. "I just wish he'd quit trying to be cute, smart and funny. We had fun with statements going back and forth, but they never looked the same in the paper."

"He chose to retire," retorted Palmer. "Therefore, only one of us can be cute and funny (now). He lost his credibility when he retired."

Informed of Palmer's latest remarks, Weaver said, "Same old stuff," then added another needle. Told that Palmer had given up three runs in two innings of an intrasquad game recently, Weaver asked, "Did he blame me?"

In all things, Palmer sees the human contrast between Weaver and Altobelli, who is just the sort of manager Palmer has always imagined would have helped make his career as palatable and pleasant off the field as it was successful on the field.

Altobelli, walking through the clubhouse after a squad game, pats Benny Ayala on the shoulder and gives him a wink and a thumbs-up sign for his grand slam homer. Palmer, who feels he was done out of 15 years of such pats on the back, is ready to canonize Altobelli for such acts of natural personal grace and generosity.

"Joe's made the drills and the signs simpler," said Palmer. "That helps because ballplayers aren't rocket scientists and, over a long season, it's hard to concentrate on signs that are harder than they have to be. But Earl liked complex signs because he was Earl Weaver and that's how he did it . . .

"Joe also circulates a lot more. You only saw Earl sitting in the dugout. I get the impression that Joe doesn't miss much. He's a good baseball man and good baseball men are alert, so that doesn't surprise me."

The wail of Palmer's athletic old age has been that Weaver didn't understand that a geriatric arm was attached to Palmer's still-young body. Every year, Palmer moaned that he needed more relief help, more rest between starts, plus, perhaps, an occasional skipped start in midseason to revive the soup bone. To all this, Weaver screamed, "Palmer wants special treatment. I have to manage 25 players, not just Palmer."

Now Palmer, it seems, will even have a say in taking himself out of games.

"Jimmy's analysis of his own condition is very important," said General Manager Hank Peters this week. "Of course, if you based your decisions entirely on what Palmer said he felt like before he pitched, he might have only started 100 games in his career. Now that's an exaggeration, a little joke. What you want is to reach a balance (in deciding how much weight to give to Palmer's thoughts on himself).

"Every time a pitcher says, 'I think I've had it,' you can't jump to take him out," said Peters. "On the other hand, no one should ever question Palmer's fortitude. Jimmy was always a great finisher. But he knows better than anyone that he's physically not what he was five years ago . . . There are going to be stretches when he feels superb, or when he has big leads, and he will give us complete games, but there will also be times when he needs more help (late in games) than he once did."

Over the years, Peters has run a close second to Weaver on Palmer's love-hate list. Hearing Peters' statements read to him secondhand, Palmer adopted his best we'll-see expression and said, "The words of spring."

A year ago, the Orioles were ready to write Palmer out of their future. Now, after a 15-5 season, 11 wins in a row and a 3.13 ERA in 227 innings, he's at the center of the picture again, having started today's exhibition opener against the Yankees.

"I don't see why he can't win 15 to 20 for the next two years," said Ray Miller, pitching coach. "He's our leader by example. I don't know how many times the whole world wrote us off last year and Jimmy came back and won the big game that got us going again . . . I know it sounds crazy to say about someone who's going to win 300 games, but he's more of a complete pitcher now. It isn't just fast ball away and changeup. He's using his slider to left-handers and his changeup curve ball to righties more than he ever has."

Palmer, of course, is ahead of everybody else in fearing the worst and, thus, preparing for it. His motivational talisman is the example of what Tom Seaver has endured in the past three years. In '80, Seaver--a year older than Palmer--had the sort of creeping mediocrity year (10-8) that Palmer had a season later (7-8). In '81, Seaver rebounded with exactly the kind of near-Cy Young season (14-2) that Palmer had last season. Then, in '82, just when it seemed Seaver had achieved a new old-age modus operandi, he was shelled (5-13) and got traded.

"A lot of things went against Seaver," said Palmer. "I know I have to get off to a good start or everybody will be burying me again."

For the moment, however, the world is wonderful for Palmer. "My shoulder feels fine," he volunteered, a comment as out of character as Ernie Banks saying, "What a lousy day for a stupid ball game."

Palmer opened the locker room door at Miami Stadium, gazed out into the crime-ridden neighborhood around the park and said, in typical Palmer style, "Well, my car's still there. That's what I consider a good day."

Palmer exited smiling. Earl Weaver was nowhere in sight.