A season and a half after he led Baltimore to a World Series victory in his first season, Joe Altobelli probably managed his last game for the Orioles tonight.

Before this 6-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers began, some in Tiger Stadium thought Altobelli might keep his job a while longer.

By the end, it was almost impossible to find anyone -- whether an Orioles player or Altobelli himself -- who really thought he'd be in a Baltimore uniform Thursday night.

If any manager on the ropes ever made a death-wish move, it was Altobelli in the eighth inning. With the Orioles behind, 3-2, and Tigers on second and third, he marched to the mound to talk to Mike Boddicker.

There were three obvious choices. Bring in Tippy Martinez to face Lou Whitaker. Walk Whitaker and have Don Aase pitch to Alan Trammell. Or have Boddicker walk Whitaker and pitch to Trammell.

There was one other possibility: let Boddicker pitch to Whitaker, who is not only left-handed but is the second-leading hitter in the league and is on a 10-for-15 tear.

That's what Altobelli did.

The stage was set for perfect baseball theater. Whitaker should have hit a home run to make Altobelli's last decision in office a total disaster.

Whitaker did. His line drive smashed into the right-field bleachers like an old-time fundamentalist preacher driving home a point. Altobelli, as well-known for his terrible touch with strategy as he is respected for his decency and easy-riding leadership, had shot himself in the foot one more time.

After the game, when reporters came into the clubhouse, Altobelli refused to comment, snapping, "I've done enough talking. Get out," and slammed the door of his office. Orioles players, led by Gary Roenicke, came to Altobelli's aid, yelling, "Get the vultures the bleep out."

After 25 minutes, the door swung open and a chastened Altobelli was almost apologetic, saying his office is too small for the crush of dozens of media people.

In losing their fifth straight game to fall into fourth place eight games behind Toronto, the Orioles didn't get a hit over the last eight innings against Dan Petry (9-4). After a double by Eddie Murray and a home run by Fred Lynn in the second inning, Petry retired 24 of the last 25 men he faced, including the last 19 in a row.

Also, to rub salt in the wound, one key difference in this game was a first-inning error by Murray that directly led to one unearned run and indirectly fueled a three-run inning. As if the Orioles needed more bad news, their ace, Boddicker (6-6), lost his fifth straight game.

Almost to a man, Orioles players defended Altobelli and blamed themselves for what they assume will be a Thursday announcement that either Earl Weaver (if he wants the job) or Frank Robinson will be their manager.

"Whether it's Frank Robinson, Cal Ripken Sr., or the other guy," said catcher Rick Dempsey, never a Weaver fan, "we have to play a lot better if we're going to start winning.

"Everything has been poor all year and, in general, the attitude has not been what it used to be. Joe has given us the (free) rein to play our own game. The veterans should look at themselves in the mirror. We know what it takes to win and we haven't done it.

"The players need to rise up and kick themselves in the rear. We're too good to be in fourth place."

"Joe's been outstanding with this whole thing," said a troubled Scott McGregor, reading from the Acts of the Apostles by his locker. "He was even joking about getting fired tonight to keep us loose. He lost track of the outs one inning and when he kidded him, he said, 'I got an excuse today.' When Dauer lined out for the second time, he said, 'Richie, I don't know who's going worse, you or me.'

"The man has definitely been in the guillotine."

Boddicker, perhaps the best player to blossom under Altobelli, felt particularly guilty. "Joe came out, and I told him, 'I haven't won in four starts. I'd like to (stay in the game) and try.' He said, 'Do what you have to do,' which means don't give Whitaker a pitch to hit.

"On 1-1, I was going to bounce a change up, but it slipped out of my fingers. It kind of ripped my heart out to see it floating up there. I knew Lou would just kill it. I thought, 'Oh, geez, it's gone.' "

And probably Altobelli with it.

"Joe's the one who gave me my shot in '83," Boddicker said. "He's not the reason we're losing. What can he do? He's a pretty classy man. He can be bitter about this. He has a right to be.

"This is a helluva way to make a living, isn't it?"

Perhaps Terry Crowley, "an Alto man all the way," summed up many Orioles feelings when he said, "So, who's the new manager?"

The consensus among Orioles is that Weaver has been offered the job, but that if he refuses Robinson ("no comment") will be asked next. Coaches Cal Ripken Sr. and Ray Miller are the only other extreme long shots. "If it's just money that brings Earl back, if he doesn't want the job, then he's the wrong man for the job," said McGregor.

As Altobelli was about to leave, hair combed, tie in place, emotions back under control, he turned to a Detroit TV crew and said: "Need somebody to do the sports news tomorrow night?"