For most of us, aging is a consistent, gradual process, something we do one day at a time. Not for Nate Snell, though. Last fall, when the Baltimore Orioles went on their tour of Japan, Snell found a way to skip the small stuff and do some serious aging. In one big bite, Snell, a relief pitcher who had been brought up to Baltimore in the last two weeks of the season after spending eight years in the minors, went from 29 to 32 -- snap! -- when he applied for a passport and his age on his birth certificate disagreed sharply with his age in the Orioles' press guide. I have heard of people gaining a day when they cross the International Date Line. But Snell gained three years.

Hey, not to worry.

As Gary Hart told the American voters: What's a year or two between friends?

But begging your pardon, Mr. Snell, how does such a thing happen?

"Well, I don't know, maybe my birth certificate was messed up," Snell said, trying to keep his face and his story straight. "Maybe one of the forms I filled out was messed up. Maybe a long time ago the Orioles wrote one date of birth down and I never corrected it."

Did you think you were 29?

"No. I know how old I am."

Why didn't you let the Orioles know?

Snell smiled. "If it helps you to be a better prospect by being 29 than 32, wouldn't you be 29?"

Honestly, did you shave those years off yourself?

"I really don't know how to answer that; it's such a long time ago. Look, I was 23 when I signed, and I've been playing for nine years, so there's no big deal now; they've seen me long enough to know me."

The Orioles were mostly in a mood to laugh it off. "When I was playing, there was always your baseball age and your real age," Ray Miller, the Orioles' pitching coach, said. "Whatever number you could get a scout to sign you at, you took. Hundreds of guys have gotten mysteriously older when they made it to the majors." Said Bob Brown, the director of public relations: "We all had a good laugh over it; obviously this is an age-old baseball custom, to fib a little bit about your age." Rolling his eyes, Brown added, "Of course, three years is a little heavy."

Is there more?

If Snell should make the team this season, as appears reasonable right now, what more will we learn about him? That he's not even 32, but 40? That his name is really Snellpence? That Warren Beatty owns the film rights?

For all the jokes, the fact is that Snell's age has less relevance to the Orioles than it might to many teams. A team like Cleveland might be playing for five years from now; the Orioles are playing for now. "If you're a first-division ball club, you take the best 25 players available to you," Miller said. The Orioles have a vacancy sign in their bullpen for one pitcher to back up Sammy Stewart in long relief as well as Tippy Martinez and Don Aase in short relief. Snell's competition for the job is coming from Mark Anthony Brown and nonroster players Odell Jones and Dave Rajsich. In assessing Snell's chances, Miller said, "He did great when we picked him up last year. He was our best pitcher in Japan, and he's done well this spring. He's a great fielder. He throws strikes. He works fast, and he keeps you in the game."

So where's he been all my life?

Charlotte, N.C., mostly.

If Charlotte were Capistrano, Nate Snell would be a swallow, he's been coming back there for so long.

"He's not a 90-mile an hour arm," Miller explained. "Baseball people don't want to jump on the bandwagon of a minor league guy who's been around a while; if he doesn't throw hard, they say he's not a prospect. Of course, if he gets to the majors and wins, nobody talks about how hard he throws."

Considering Snell's 49-52 record in the minors, we're probably not talking about Roy Hobbs here, but it would be nice, after all these years, if Snell made it to the majors for a while. He seems a nice man, tall (6 feet 4), thin (190 pounds), soft-spoken and, obviously, patient; last September was the first time he was called up. "I was nervous," he admitted. "I wasn't used to seeing so many people in the stands, or hearing so much noise from the crowd." When he finally got the chance to pitch in the majors, and heard his name announced in the stadium, he felt such a thrill, he said, it made all the waiting worthwhile: "I know it didn't come as quickly as I would have liked, but the point is that it came."

You don't go eight years riding on old buses, sleeping in cinder-block motels and living on $12 a day meal money without it crossing your mind that maybe you're in the wrong line of work. "Many times," Snell conceded, "many times. You see guys who are being pushed ahead of you even though you've done a good job. You feel you should be there, and you're not. You think of quitting. But you've got to put that in the back of you mind, and go ahead and play ball."

But why?

"For the love of the game."

Snell leaned back, bracing himself against the dugout wall, and talked about growing up in the small South Carolina town of Vance. "I used to watch the Game of the Week on television. I saw all the big ballplayers, and I knew that if I could get a job playing pro ball -- it didn't matter what level -- that would be the right thing for me. The Orioles drafted me in the 18th round in 1972. I went to Bluefield, W.Va., to see if I liked it, but I didn't sign because I got homesick. Five years later some scouts came to see me again, and I jumped on it; if baseball still wanted me, I surely wanted it. I never thought I would get this close to the majors. Now that I am this close, I don't want to let go."

In his minor league life Nate Snell has worn uniforms numbered 20, 22, 27, 28, 29 and 30. As a nonroster player in the Orioles' camp he has worn 68, 72 and 73. This year he's wearing 36 -- the same number he had for his two weeks in Baltimore -- and it feels good. He'd like to keep it all season. But eight years in the minors make a man hesitant to claim anything he can't hold in his hands. "At my age, I guess you could say that if I'm not there, or getting there right now, it's pretty tough for me," Snell said. He'd like to think he can pitch in the majors for a few years still; he's as good this March at 32 as he was last September at 29. But if the Orioles send him out, he'll go. For the love of the game.