The Baltimore Orioles have been in first place on the first day of May five times in their history and all five times they won the American League pennant: in 1966, '69, '70, '79 and '83.

In the Orioles' other 26 seasons when they weren't on top after April, they won only one pennant.

This season, the Orioles backed into first place by percentage points on the second day of May.

What shall we make of such an omen?

In 1984, when the Orioles started 2-10 and were 11 games out in April, it was written here that history said they were already almost certainly dead.

Fair's fair. Now, the same record books say pennant fever is justified.

Most teams follow patterns, but few are as predictable as Baltimore. When the Orioles start fast, it usually means major changes have succeeded and motivational sparks have ignited a fire.

The hot start in 1969 coincided with Manager Earl Weaver's first full year. In '70, the team's shame at being upset in the '69 Series by the Miracle Mets primed the pump.

In '79 a wave of new players arrived, giving Weaver platoon capacity and pitching depth: John Lowenstein, Steve Stone, Gary Roenicke, Benny Ayala, Sammy Stewart and Tim Stoddard. Finally, in '83 the club was driven by the memory of its last-day near-miss against Milwaukee in the pennant race of '82. Also, a new popular manager, Joe Altobelli, arrived and Mike Boddicker materialized.

If 1984 started like a typical Orioles slump year, then 1985 has the earmarks of a typical season of Baltimore fireworks.

For motivation, the Orioles recall their fifth-place finish, worst in 17 years. More important are new players at heretofore weak positions. Fred Lynn, Don Aase, Ken Dixon, Larry Sheets, Fritz Connally, Nate Snell and Lee Lacy look even better than the '79 talent transfusion.

Dixon (like Storm Davis, Boddicker and Cal Ripken earlier in the '80s) may even be the sort of front-line player who fundamentally alters our evaluation of a team. A pitcher capable of 15 wins (or a 75-RBI hitter) can tilt a whole club's identity. Mike Young and Sheets may prove to be such players, too.

Even the team brass doesn't seem to grasp yet how much the turnover has improved the Orioles. They have been so busy worrying about Mike Flanagan's Achilles' heel, Lacy's thumb, Scott McGregor's migraines, Davis' ineffectiveness and the weak bats at second base that they haven't had time to count their blessings.

The same thing happened in 1983 when constant injuries forced the team to focus its attention, compensate for lost friends and, in effect, ignore its own strengths. That season nobody noticed until World Series time that three outfield platoons had produced all-star stats.

Now, the same thing may be happening. The '84 Orioles got a pathetic 37 home runs from six players who shared time in left, center and DH. Now, four of them (Al Bumbry, John Shelby, Ken Singleton and Ayala) are gone, while Lowenstein is a shadow figure.

The new folks -- Lynn, Sheets, Young (for a full year) -- all add power, while Connally is a big power plus over Todd Cruz. And don't forget Babe Dempsey.

Baltimore has 30 homers in its first 21 games -- a 231-homer pace with hot weather yet to come. Listening to the Orioles complain about how much they miss Lacy before he's ever swung in their regular season, you'd wonder if anybody on the team owns a pocket calculator. They're scoring at an 864-run pace; the club record is 805.

Already much is obvious about the new Orioles. First, the club home run record (181) is definitely in danger. That makes comebacks an inevitability. The team has nine such wins already, reviving talk of Oriole Magic.

The outfield defense should be marginally improved by Lynn and Lacy. The coaching staff, weak last year, is far better with Frank Robinson and Terry Crowley.

Odd as it seems, the Orioles' area of great concern is pitching. If Dixon and Dennis Martinez continue their good work and if Flanagan returns by the All-Star break as he predicts, this could be a premier staff. But those are big ifs, and there remains the question of McGregor and Davis returning to form. Martinez is a slim reed on which to depend and Dixon's a rookie from AA. Flanagan may be a quick healer, but Achilles' heels are major mischief.

Finally, the bullpen's a mystery. Stewart (2.05, four saves and a win heading into the current Minnesota series) has been excellent, but he has never been a blue-chip closer.

The left-right late-inning punch-out tandem of Tippy Martinez and Aase could well be the team's key. Both have had serious arm trouble. Both look like they have good stuff again. But both have been utterly erratic. They've combined for four wins and two saves, but have allowed 19 runs in 21 innings.

Last season, Altobelli was asked to do the thing he does worst: motivate. The man's not Knute Rockne and a team facing a double-figure deficit needs constant stroking. This season, Altobelli will be asked to do what he does best: handle a delicate, complicated pitching staff.

He did it in San Francisco in 1978, then proved the point again in '83 when Flanagan was out 80 days, Jim Palmer missed 20 starts, Dennis Martinez collapsed to 7-16 and Stoddard ballooned to a 6.09 ERA.

Managers get to the majors because they do something well. And they get fired because they can't do everything well. Usually, it's the matchup of man and task that matters.

This spring, history says the Orioles will soon regain the high perch they inhabited in '79, '80, '82 and '83. They should play .600 baseball again. Whether that will be enough to win a pennant against the toughs from Detroit and Toronto will require a six-month argument, omens notwithstanding.

After all, the 1985 Orioles didn't reach first place until the second day of May.