Today is Lee Lacy's birthday. He's 36.Don't remind him.

If any man in baseball is sick of waiting, disgusted with watching his prime years drip away, it's Lacy.

But now the Baltimore Orioles' new free agent has to wait some more.

When you twiddle your thumbs for 13 seasons, bidding your time for your big break, then, when you finally get it, break your thumb, it makes you wonder.

When one doctor tells you March 12 that you just have a sprain and can keep on playing, then you find out two weeks later that you need surgery, it can make you a little crazy.

Time is more precious to Lacy these days than blood. And he sees it trickling away. That drives him nuts.

"I been laughing to keep from crying," Lacy said Monday, sitting in the Orioles' locker room, a cast on his right hand. "Man, this whole thing has been scary, very scary."

When you dive for a fly ball in the fourth game of spring training and the team orthopedist says that you've just jammed your thumb, that's not so bad.

But when you play in pain for 11 more exhibition games, lead the team in hitting, play until the pain stabs up to your elbow, you start to worry.

Then, when they send you to a hand specialist and he tells you that you've ruptured the ulnar collateral ligament and the dorsal capsule of your thumb, you get mad. "They think I did myself some more damage by keeping on playing," he says, tight-lipped. "I think so, too."

Lacy doesn't exactly blame anybody. He knows the first diagnosis may have been perfect. He goes along with the official Orioles line that he probably aggravated a minor injury. But neither he, nor anyone else, can prove it.

"Oh, I kept diving back into bases head first and diving in the outfield," he says. "That's just how I play. I'll never know whether it was hurt (badly) all along."

It's every pro athlete's dilemma. Rest or push on. He pushed; he paid.

When they tell you that you need surgery, that they'll have to sew the ligaments back into the bone and remove a chip of cartilage and even insert a pin to stabilize your thumb joint, you almost get physically ill.

Lacy puts his hand to his stomach just at the thought. "I told 'em I wasn't going to get the surgery, that I'd just keep on playing in pain."

But Lacy had no choice.

Last Wednesday, he had surgery. This Thursday, the day after his birthday, the cast comes off and Lacy gets the first report on when he may get to come back in the lineup after rehabilitation. May 1 is a remote possibility. May 15 would be a better guess.

To sense how deeply upset Lacy has been by his injury, you have to know his unique career. No man in major league history ever passed his 35 birthday, and had more than 10 years of major league service, before becoming a regular. Last year, Lacy did it.

Once he finally became a lineup fixture in May, he batted .321 for Pittsburgh (second in the NL) and, over the winter, signed a four-year contract for more than $2.5 million.

At last, this year, his dream would come true -- to play a full season from opening day for a contending team with a great lineup around him. No more pinch-hitting and platooning. "The easiest thing I ever did in sports was play every day last year."

Just one complete line in the record book. That's what Lacy wanted. Something to point at and say, "I told you so."

"I'm perfect for this team," says Lacy. "Everything I can do is just what they need done. The things I can't do, they have people who can do them.

"Bat first or second, play right field. I fit like a glove here."

Or he did until March 12.

"Until that happened, I was doing exactly what I wanted with my game. Working on my bunting, hitting to all fields, working on fundamentals. I was just starting to turn on the ball and hit with some power. Doing a lot of things right."

All the money in Lacy's pay envelope isn't helping much. He could have gotten the money several places. What he wanted was the Orioles.

"After I signed here, I saw Reggie Jackson, who lives in my home town, and he said, 'Great selection. Great team. One of the best owners. Perfect for you.' Since I've been here, it's been just like he said."

Lee Lacy waited four years in the minors, seven years on the Los Angeles Dodgers' bench and five years on the Pirates' bench. Even though his career average is .289 and he's batted .300 five times, he's a master of waiting.

He can wait another month. This time, it might even be easier. In the past, he never had a job waiting for him when he returned. He was never the star or the guy with the guaranteed contract. Now, Lacy is the honcho. What goes around does come around, sometimes.

"If I get back by mid-May, could I still get up 500 times this year?" asks Lacy rhetorically.

A player needs 502 plate appearances to be batting champion.

When you wait as long as Lacy has, you want something to show for it.