Real tradition, like an ingrained sense of values, is something that doesn't rub off in a year.

In the case of a baseball team, it isn't washed away by one fifth-place season or even by the sadness of watching valuable veterans sent kicking into retirement. It isn't debased by the arrival of a few new free agent players (even those bought at exorbitant auction prices) or by the idea of a fancy new electronic scoreboard bestriding the outfield.

If a grounding in tradition is the genuine article -- as the Baltimore Orioles have assumed it to be in their case for 25 years -- then it almost enjoys the challenge of hard times. In other words, if the past quarter century on 33rd Street has not been an illusion, then the rank baseball smells of 1984 truly were just a passing stench and the sweet aroma of a pennant race will soon return to Memorial Stadium.

Starting today at 2:05 p.m. with opening day against the Texas Rangers.

Customarily, the Orioles respond to a disappointing season -- that's to say, one in which they don't finish first or second -- by pinning the league's ears back.

Before last season, for example, the last time the Orioles finished in the second division was 1967, when they disgraced their '66 world championship with a losing record the following season; in '68, Baltimore jumped back to second place, then won three consecutive American League pennants.

What is at stake for the Baltimore Orioles in 1985 is, quite simply, their tradition. Just as the Los Angeles Dodgers, on the other side of the continent, are wondering whether their decades of excellence are at an end, the Orioles must face the same harsh possibilities. All organizations have "down years." But the dynasties almost always bounce back immediately. One bad year is human imperfection, an aberration. Two bad years is . . . a new tradition. Of losing.

Last winter the Orioles confronted the seriousness of their predicament. In a lesser division than the American League East they might have reacted calmly with, perhaps, a trade or an organizational decision to bring along a couple of rookies more quickly. But in a division with five teams capable of 90 or more victories, the Orioles considered drastic measures essential.

Those measures are named Fred Lynn, Don Aase and Lee Lacy -- free agents -- and Larry Sheets, Ken Dixon and Fritz Connally -- hungry rookies.

At the top end, Baltimore bought proven talent. Are Lynn, Aase and Lacy clearly better than the people they replaced -- i.e., Al Bumbry, Tom Underwood and Benny Ayala? Beyond question. Are they worth $12 million? On a raw stat-for-dollar basis, probably not. By week's end, their combined age will be 99. But, seen differently, seen as a plasma transfusion at a time when the whole direction of a bleeding franchise was in question, weren't they a necessary extravagance? Almost certainly. Sometimes value must be more broadly defined.

When Storm Davis throws today's first pitch, the Orioles will start their season with a square-business fair chance. For openers, their first game opponent will be knuckle baller Charlie Hough, the pitcher they hit harder than anybody else in the league last year -- 12 hits and 12 runs in four innings. He has never beaten Baltimore (0-5).

Davis, on the other hand, is 4-0 against the Rangers, beat them three times last year and will have the inspiration of watching his hero Jim Palmer throw out the first pitch. Perhaps the sight of the right-handed hitting Rangers will straighten out Davis' spring miseries (a 5.52 Florida ERA).

In a larger context, the Orioles have been granted what amounts to a two-month grace period by the schedule maker. Between April 8 and June 3, they will play 10 games against clubs that were over .500 last year, eight against teams that were exactly .500 and 27 against last year's losers.

Last season both the Orioles and the Detroit Tigers had just such soft early schedules. The Tigers went 35-5. The Orioles were 5-13 and 11 games behind by April 25. Considering the AL East's vast superiority again this year, it would be unwise for the Orioles to play anything less than .650 ball before early June. Asking too much you say? The Orioles were 31-22 at one juncture last year and were still 9 1/2 games back.

Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson speaks disingenuously of how he'd wouldn't "be too upset with a 20-20 start" and would be delighted with 25-15. That might be good reverse psychology but it's lousy arithmetic. Any East team that starts 20-20 better be prepared to call up Babe Ruth's grandson, 'cause they're gonna have a heap of ground to make up.

The Orioles begin their quest for renewed self-esteem in tolerable but still worried condition. Mike Flanagan's injury should not materially effect the team until June at the earliest. His absence has allowed Dennis Martinez (3.30 in 30 Florida innings) to regain a bit of confidence. Dixon, also given more attention, has opened more eyes than Mike Boddicker ever did when he first came up.

The March injury to Lacy's thumb (he'll be back in mid-May) can't be dismissed so cavalierly. In his absence, second-year man Mike Young will play against lefties and he hit .195 against them last year. Also, anything that increases Dan Ford's chances of playing isn't usually too good.

Few teams have ever started a season with a more universal feeling of being under the gun. The Orioles' theme song should be, "You Got Me Under Pressure."

Can Lynn play hurt, hit left-handers or solve Memorial Stadium's deep power alleys? Will Lacy be haunted all season by an injury that was not correctly diagnosed for more than two weeks. Will Aase's elbow, held together by a transplanted tendon, stay together?

Will Dennis Martinez atone for his years of disappointing performance? Will Flanagan come back in time to help or just come back too soon? Will Tippy Martinez's sore arm continue to feel strong? What's Davis' spring problem?

Will Connally be part of a 25-homer platoon at third, or will he bring back memories of Leo Hernandez? Will Ford play up to his ability with a new contract at stake? Will Lenn Sakata, who's now slated to platoon at second base against left-handers, add a smidgen of hitting? Will Rick Dempsey, at 35, and Joe Nolan, at 33, stay healthy behind the plate for one more year?

Will Manager Joe Altobelli, who knows his job probably hangs in the balance, transmit a sense of purpose or of anxiety?

Will the Baltimore Orioles' long, exciting and distinguished tradition be preserved and extended? Or will the deteriorations of 1984 continue?

Full house, fair skies and butterflies. They call it opening day.