In the spring of 1984, Ray Miller, the Baltimore pitching coach, took Ken Dixon, an obscure minor league pitcher with a 31-48 career record, to the woodshed. Now, Dixon leads the American League in earned run average and may help the Orioles to the penthouse.

In a dugout era of "communication" and sweet reason, it's reassuring to know that the old leather-belt approach still has its uses.

Sometimes baseball history seems like a long set of recurrences. That's why one of a major league coach's jobs is to spot disastrous career patterns before they can be repeated in a new generation. It's usually a tough task.

Except when you see someone making all of your old mistakes. Then an alarm bell goes off.

Most of the time Miller speaks softly, has a small doghouse and spares the rod. He's new school. But, in Dixon's case, he made an exception.

Miller once knew a player who needed a punch in the mouth but didn't get it. Fellow named Ray Miller. A little too tough and cocky, maybe a little prone to self-pity and the sulk, too. A good guy, but treading water in the bushes.

Last spring, Miller finally "got sick of listening to people tell me what a great arm Ken Dixon had. Sometimes I think we're too gentle with people."

Miller was lots of things, none gentle. He took Dixon aside and said, "I spent my whole career hearing, 'You got a great arm.' I threw 100 mph one day on some test gun. But I never got a shot in the majors. I told Kenny, 'You're headed down the same road. You better kick yourself in the butt and put up some numbers, some big numbers, or else find another way to make a living. If everybody thinks you're so good, why don't you ever do it?"

The transformation in Dixon since that day is so astounding it hardly seems possible that it could all be coincidence. In the last two weeks, Dixon has started three Oriole games, won twice, including a three-hitter, and given up just one run in each appearance for a 1.25 ERA. Counting spring training, where his ERA was 0.47, he has allowed four earned runs in 41 innings.

Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams calls Dixon "our most effective pitcher this year. Isn't it fun to watch an Oriole who's a real power pitcher?"

Ed Liberatore, the top scout of the Los Angeles Dodgers, calls Dixon "already one of the better pitchers around . . . He's got a late-breaking curve that's difficult to pick up and it can make some real good hitters look pathetic. He's got the poise and the mound presence which is so important."

Teammates rave over him. Rich Dauer calls him "your basic phenom . . . one of the best I've ever seen. He's going to be something." Rick Dempsey says he's "a battler and a tough kid. He takes charge. He just needs a better changeup." John Lowenstein adds, "He's not impressive. He's oppressive."

Even Orioles Manager Joe Altobelli says slyly, "We didn't know what we had in Mike Boddicker two years ago. Maybe we don't know what we have in Dixon now . . .

"He's a bright, promising young pitcher. We've had a few of those, huh?"

The rest of baseball is wondering how Dixon ever went from minor league seasons of 4-5, 6-14, 10-16 and 11-13 with a 4.27 ERA to the top of the '85 rookie crop. What's going on here? Somebody pull a uniform switch?

In the movies, that old coach's lecture would have solved the problem. In reality, it didn't. A month after the Miller jaw session, Dixon was down in the mouth about being at AA Charlotte. Miller repeated his challenge. In essence, he told Dixon to stop moping and break a few Southern League records.

And Dixon did. Nobody had ever had 20 complete games or 240 innings in that league before. He also led the league with 210 strikeouts and a 16-8 record.

There's more to the story that Miller doesn't tell. He'd like Dixon to believe a change of heart is all it takes to make the majors. It's not that easy. You need a break, too. Miller doesn't mention that he, Miller, also underwent an attitude conversion after four years in the minors. After having a 22-31 career record, he woke up at age 23 and also had a 16-8 record in AA ball and fanned 206. What Dixon got that Miller missed was a gilt-edged opportunity.

When Mike Flanagan ruptured his Achilles' heel last winter, a rotation spot opened. Suddenly, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Dixon, who rushed for 1,585 football yards for Amherst High in Monroe, Va., was in line for a long look.

Miller welcomed Dixon to Florida with a hard look and the words, "You haven't proved anything. You have to do it all over again this year."

What still scares the Orioles a bit is Dixon's confidence. In a rookie, it's enough to cause a double take. He acts like he's always belonged in a big league spotlight. "Kenny used to have a cockiness that you don't like to see," says General Manager Hank Peters. "Not confidence, cockiness. It wasn't in anything he said, just his mannerisms. It can irritate others, even teammates."

Perhaps the Orioles shouldn't have worried so much. It takes time to grow up and Dixon may have been heading in the right direction anyway.

"I used to go crazy out on the mound at one time," he said this week. "It's more difficult to pitch when you get upset. I just had to learn how to concentrate through adversity instead of being distracted by it.

"Ray told me, 'You got it. Don't waste it.' I realized I couldn't just stand by and wait for things to happen. I had to try to learn how to pitch. There are cans and can'ts, do's and don'ts. I had to learn the things I couldn't afford to do."

Like getting angry or grumpy, then losing your concentration.

"It's really just getting a grip on yourself," says Dixon.

On Wednesday night, Dixon held a 2-1 lead over Chicago but the White Sox had men on the corners with Oscar Gamble at bat and the count full. In a spot where many rookies crack, Dixon reached back and snapped off a curve that sent Gamble to one knee as he lunged and missed. Winning pitcher: Dixon.

Once, when Dixon found baseball wasn't so easy, and faced men less dangerous than Gamble, he floundered. Now, he has a more realistic view. "If you had to survive in the wilderness, you'd do it," he says. "You'd find a way."