If this is the Joe Altobelli Era, the Baltimore Orioles want more of it.

"I think it's going to be a fun year," said Scott McGregor tonight after beating Cleveland, 4-1, on a confident seven-hitter. "For a few years, we expected to win, but this year we want to win, and it's a nice feeling."

In April, frigid Memorial Stadium usually feels like a meat house and the Oriole locker room feels like a morgue. The Orioles' pitching is in disrepair and the perplexed team is trapped at the bottom of the standings.

Now, suddenly, the Orioles find themselves in first place with a 6-4 record; last season, Baltimore began 2-10 and, at this juncture, was in the choke hold of a nine-game losing streak.

After only 10 games, the Baltimore pitching staff is already showing the signs of life that usually don't arrive until late May. The clubhouse rings with laughter. Altobelli waltzes through the clubhouse in his goofy head-to-toe union suit while the whole clubhouse is in muzzled hysterics making up wisecracks about the way Rick Dempsey hit Mike (The Human Rain Delay) Hargrove on the ear with an "accidentally wild" throw back to the mound.

In only three days back home, after allowing 20 runs in two games in Chicago, the Orioles have watched three key starters--Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan and now McGregor--reel off prime performances. That trio, over 23 innings, allowed Cleveland only two runs as the Orioles won three of four in this series.

Sharing honors with McGregor this evening were Jim Dwyer, Rich Dauer and Dempsey. Dwyer got the game-winning hit--a leadoff, full-count home run into the right field bullpen off loser Len Barker in the fifth that broke a 1-1 tie; Dwyer, who's getting to serve as designated hitter because Ken Singleton has a minor pulled muscle, has reached base in 25 of his last 40 plate appearances dating back to Sept. 25. Dwyer has hit in 11 consecutive games, a streak which he prefers to refer to as "my seven-month hitting streak."

Dauer, who doubled and scored in the third, got an RBI single in the Orioles' two-run insurance seventh inning.

Despite this, Dempsey was the favorite hero. His shallow fly in the third scored the slow Dauer, who scored ahead of right fielder Bake McBride's piteously weak throw. Then, in the seventh, Dempsey lined a double off the right field fence, driving in the game's final run.

Nonetheless, Dempsey will live in Orioles lore for one barely noticed play in the seventh inning.

All night, the freezing crowd booed Hargrove as he dawdled in the batter's box, stepping out, as he always does, between pitches. The Orioles were hot, too. Or, rather, cold. "We're sitting there on the bench with our toes curling up and the pitcher's getting stiff while Hargrove's adjusting his glove 25 times," growled coach Ray Miller afterward.

This time, as Hargrove went into his ritual, Dempsey--still in his crouch--threw the ball almost sideways, as though throwing toward first base. The ball hit Hargrove on the left ear and ricocheted all the way to the third base coach.

No one will ever know to what degree this incident--cheered by the crowd--was accidental. Hargrove, however, knows a baseball truth.

If you make 'em mad, they can stick it in your ear from both directions.

"Maybe next time we play, he'll wear a helmet with a ear flap on both sides," Miller said.

"It was a classic," Flanagan said. "We were tryin' to knock him down from both ends. Rick smoked him pretty good, too. Did you see how far that ball bounced after it hit his head?"

"Did it speed him up any?" asked Tippy Martinez, who had been in the bullpen.

"Well, the next time up, he grounded out on the first pitch to end the game," Singleton said.

"That's how they ran him out of the National League," coach Elrod Hendricks said. "If they didn't put him on the disabled list, they drilled him. And if they didn't drill him, they had him crawling in the dirt. They won't let you pull that stuff in that league."

Hargrove said, "It hit me right in the head . . . I'm sure he didn't do it on purpose."

"I don't know how that happened," Dempsey said, straight-faced. "Never happened before. It's lucky it just kinda glanced off his head."

These days, Altobelli is, quite rightly, of good cheer. No Oriole team has ever scored more than 60 runs in its first 10 games; this one has scored 67. The Orioles' pitching theory for April was to throw fast balls in the cold, stretch out some arms, then work in the breaking balls later; Earl Weaver's notions were opposite, starting with curves first. This evening, McGregor threw 94 fast balls in 128 pitches and didn't even need to use his best pitch, the changeup, until the late innings.

In all quarters, Orioles are looking for excuses to be happy. Dan Ford is earning applause (and the new nickname--Dirty Dan) with his sliding hit-stealing catches in right field. Eddie Murray, hitting .402, has turned cheerleader in the dugout, a welcome development for a team that has lacked Frank Robinson-style leadership for years.

What does it all mean? "It means I can smile for a while," said Altobelli.