Edward Bennett Williams may know the psychology of picking a jury, but today he may not have been quite as adept at analyzing the psyche of a free agent.

This morning Williams met with slugger Andre Thornton, the 33-homer man his Baltimore Orioles badly wanted as their designated hitter in 1985. The great trial lawyer used his eloquence.

This afternoon, the Orioles' general manager, Hank Peters, proclaimed, "Thornton's definitely interested in playing for us. We stand a pretty good chance of signing him."

Peters then indicated that the Orioles were not taking at face value Thornton and his agents' statement they would not dicker over contract terms but would, in essence, say yes to the first club that said yes to them.

"Nobody (i.e., no team) ever accepts a first proposal (from a player)," Peters said flatly. "You can say it, but nobody's going to take you up on it. That's just not how you do business."

Tonight, Andre Thornton, a man who looks at his prayer book, not his checkbook, when he makes important decisions, signed a four-year, $4.4-million (according to sources) contract with his old team, the Cleveland Indians.

According to Thornton, as well as his agents, the Hendricks brothers, and the Indians' new president, Peter Bavasi, Thornton signed with Cleveland -- not Baltimore, the other leading candidate -- because the Indians acted faster.

Now, the Orioles are expected to redouble their efforts, and perhaps their speed, in attempting to sign their other high-priority free agent, left fielder Lee Lacy, who hit .321 for Pittsburgh last season.

Thornton, asked what the Orioles would have had to do to sign him, said, "They needed to do the same thing the Indians did . . . We spent a lot of time in prayer on the principles of how we would negotiate. I didn't want to waver on my word. I wasn't going to dicker back and forth . . . I refuse to play one club against another. We made one fair and comprehensive offer. The club that met our proposal (first) we knew we would feel very good about."

Thornton, 35, who had 99 RBI last year, ideally suited Baltimore's needs for a designated hitter.

Bavasi, hired as the Indians' president a week ago, walked into Thornton's hotel room this evening, shook hands, signed the contract in front of Thornton and said, "We'll take it."

Of the final teams, he said, "Baltimore certainly was a front-runner. My mother lives close. (Not going there) was one of the tougher decisions I've (ever) made . . ."

Coincidentally, Peters was talking to reporters about the day's "fruitful and productive" talks with Thornton at almost exactly the minute -- sundown -- when Bavasi was signing Thornton.

While the Orioles continued talking with Seattle about a trade for second baseman Jack Perconte (.294), other plans haven't progressed, either.

Relief pitcher Bruce Sutter's agent has "had trouble making contact" with Peters, which is usually a bad sign. Agents who want your money usually find a way to phone. Also, hopes of dealing for Oakland left fielder Rickey Henderson seem dim. The Dodgers are hot on that one, offering National League ERA champ Alejandro Pena and minor league pitchers.

Fred Lynn now may move back into the Orioles' thinking. After dumping Jim Palmer, Ken Singleton, Al Bumbry, Benny Ayala and Tom Underwood, the Orioles have money to spend and somebody's going to get it.

The Orioles also aren't pleased about reports from Baltimore that Frank Robinson will return as a coach.

"If Frank is coming back, three people might be a little upset -- (manager) Joe Altobelli, (coach) Ray Miller and (coach) Cal Ripken Sr.," said one Orioles front-office source. "If we got off to a bad start next year, Joe might feel that Frank was waiting in the wings (to manage) and Ray and Cal might have thought they were in line if the job ever opened up."

After the Thornton announcement, Peters and Williams were unavailable for comment tonight.