Year after year, Nate Snell would watch pitchers smile at the news that they were going up to the big club. Some were better than him, many were not.

Instead, Snell sat -- in Charlotte, N.C., in Shreveport, La., in Rochester, N.Y. -- for a total of eight years, waiting to get a call from the big club, the Baltimore Orioles, who apparently were in no rush to pick up the phone.

Disgust set in when be approached 30. "I was dying a little bit more every year -- just so many years of watching guys move ahead of me who I was better than," Snell said the other day.

Even today, at 32, Snell has reason to be bitter -- at baseball, at life -- for being so unfair, for making him wait so long to do the only thing he ached for. But it's hard for the most effective pitcher on his team's staff to hold a grudge now. He's too busy making up for lost time.

Through 51 games, Snell is one of the biggest surprises in the American League. He's just short of having accumulated enough innings for his 1.85 earned run average to qualify as the best in the league.

He has allowed only two earned runs in his last 25 1/3 innings and none in his last 14 2/3 innings after pitching 3 1/3 innings Friday night. Batters had managed a composite average of .222 against Snell, who has given up just 36 hits in 48 2/3 innings pitched.

Snell, a 6-foot-4 right-hander, has done all of this as Baltimore's middle reliever, probably the staff's most thankless job. He has had only three bad outings in 16 appearances this year, and five times has pitched four or more innings without allowing an earned run.

Baltimore Manager Joe Altobelli, who gets positively fired up talking about Snell, said after another four-inning stint, "He did a Snell of a job, didn't he?"

Snell is called on when one of Baltimore's starters has faltered in the early innings. "To put it in perspective," he said, "if I come in, it usually means we're losing." And, he might have added, by the time the Orioles do catch up (if they do), the late-inning men have been sent in. "By the time the glory comes around, I'm long gone," Snell said, smiling. "But that's fine."

The middle relief man on the Baltimore staff can go long stretches without even getting a call to warm up. "But a couple of guys struggled early this year," Snell said. "Fortunately for me, I was able to come in and help the team out by keeping us close, giving us a chance.

"But I know Baltimore starters tend to go nine innings as the season goes on. I'm happy to just contribute now."

The Orioles should be happy Snell had the patience to stay with the organization for seven of his eight seasons as a professional.

After four years of college at Tennessee State, he started in 1977 with Miami, then spent most of the next seven seasons being bounced between Charlotte and Rochester. His 50-53 record wasn't anything special, but it wasn't any worse than about a third of the pitchers in the major leagues today.

Snell finally had a year that forced the Orioles to take notice. He was 9-4 at Charlotte last season with a 2.42 ERA, and his 17 saves were more than any other pitcher in the organization.

That earned Snell 7 2/3 innings of work in Baltimore last September and the chance to accompany the team to Japan in the winter.

"Patience, my love for the game, was the only thing that kept me going," Snell said, "and not wanting to give it up until I really, really knew what I was capable of doing. I would have hated to leave the game wondering whether I could pitch up here."

Snell had four of the Orioles' eight victories in Japan. "I think my performance (1.08 ERA in 16 2/3 innings) in Japan was a carryover from September," he said.

"I still had a lot of confidence from just that taste of seven innings. I knew if I did well there, it could carry me into spring training. Had I not done well, it might have been a different story." Perhaps the same old story.

But Snell was throwing well, and pitching coach Ray Miller, a longtime fan of his, was lobbying as hard as he could.

"I've been blowing the horn for him for three or four years and nobody was listening," said Miller, who helped persuade Snell to stay with the Orioles instead of becoming a free agent.

Miller, whose entire playing career consisted of minor league and winter ball, never missed an opportunity to tell Altobelli how much the team could use Snell.

"They got so used to me saying, 'Snell, Snell,' that every time there was a meeting they'd say, 'Okay, who besides Snell do we want to take a look at?'

"And one day, Joe said, 'I've never had a really good ninth pitcher.' And I said, 'This can be the guy. He can go long, short, whatever you ask for.' "

Altobelli says now, "Ray had confidence in him all along. And little by little, he's put that confidence in us with his efforts. I don't know if I was skeptical about him. I just wondered about him against right-handers. But he's been great for us."