Once upon a time, the Baltimore Orioles were a small, cozy operation.

They sold fewer than 1,000 season tickets, they had only a couple dozen employes and they had a low-profile owner (Jerry Hoffberger). Remember the city's embarrassment when 5,000 seats went unsold for each 1969 World Series game?

But if they were the closest thing to baseball's Mom-and-Pop operation, they also were one of the slickest baseball organizations anywhere.

They had one of the best farm systems and some of the best baseball people anywhere, and if you don't believe that, look around today and see the former Orioles employes running or helping run the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago Cubs and New York Mets.

Then there was baseball's era of free agency, which should have devastated the cash-poor Orioles. Instead, it hardly hurt them at all.

Directly or indirectly, free agency cost them Wayne Garland, Bobby Grich, Reggie Jackson, Ross Grimsley, Dick Drago and Don Baylor, but at about this time, their farm system churned out Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, Eddie Murray, Sammy Stewart and Rich Dauer.

When the farm system didn't have the particular player they needed, it gave the Orioles enough leverage to trade for someone they did need, and those trades brought Rick Dempsey, Ken Singleton, Scott McGregor, Tippy Martinez, Gary Roenicke, and others.

Which is why the Orioles won so much -- finishing first or second eight times in the 1970s.

"One place the Orioles never cut corners was in player development," General Manager Hank Peters said. "That has been a constant. Once when I was running the Cleveland farm system, the owner said he was cutting my budget by something like 50 percent. He asked, 'Will it hurt us?' I laughed. I said it wouldn't hurt this year or next or maybe the year after. But eventually, it's going to kill you -- and it did. The Orioles have never done that."

Still, for all the Orioles were doing right on the field, very little was big-time about their off-the-field operation. They worked out of cramped offices and usually had no more than two season-ticket salespeople. They had an ad agency to do promotional campaigns, but their pitch never went much past the Baltimore suburbs.

When the Hoffberger family decided to sell the club in 1979, Baltimore was so titillated that no local buyer was willing to pay $11 million.

The man who paid that $11 million on Nov. 1, 1979, was Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams, and only six years later, the franchise's value has increased about five-fold -- to around $55 million, baseball sources estimate.

Today, the Orioles have spacious new offices inside Memorial Stadium. Inside those offices, employes have personal computers on their desks, and many have complex sales projections not only for seasons but areas.

Today, the Orioles, who had one of baseball's lowest payrolls in the '70s, have the American League's third-highest ($444,497 per man in 1985, according to league documents).

Today, the Orioles are like a lot of other big companies. Williams has hired attorneys, accountants, marketing experts and all sorts of people from private business.

The club had 40 employes when he bought the team. Today, that number has swelled to 70.

The results have been remarkable. The '79 Orioles sold 1,623 season tickets, and the '86 Orioles should crack the 12,500 mark. Club officials said that's probably their limit, since Memorial Stadium leaves them with few other premium seats to sell.

"We have dozens of people look at what's left and say, 'Call us if any of the good seats open up,' " Peters said. "The Phillies can easily sell 20,000 season tickets because they have them."

The '79 Orioles had decent radio coverage in Baltimore but almost no place else. Today, they're on Washington's 50,000-watt WTOP, and flagship station WFBR of Baltimore has created a 55-station, seven-state network.

"When we got the contract for the '79 season, I promised Hank Peters we'd put an extra 500,000 people in the stadium through our promotions," WFBR general manager Harry Shriver said. "And we did." Orioles attendance increased 630,000 from 1978 to 1979.

That radio contract comes up for renewal next winter, and the bidding between Baltimore's WFBR and WBAL is expected to be intense.

Although much of the Orioles' baseball operation has remained basically unchanged under Williams, the areas of marketing and sales have been drastically changed.

Advertisements for Orioles season tickets are slick, expensive television and radio productions, and the club now has an in-house television production company to do an annual highlights film.

One of Williams' first, and most important, decisions was to market, not only Baltimore, but Washington, northern Virginia and southern Pennsylvania.

"We really wanted a broader base for sales," Williams said. "So we decided to market the team regionally. We talked to a lot of teams, but there's no one way to market baseball. You're trying to sell a habit (going to the ballpark)."

One way to make the team more regional in scope was to refer to them as simply "Orioles," not always "Baltimore Orioles."

Many references to Baltimore were edited from the club's media guide, and television ads tell the potential ticket buyer to "Come to Birdland."

Williams also opened the Orioles Baseball Store in the District and began marketing the team heavily in Washington. Today, the Orioles say 20 percent of their sales come from the Washington area. That translates to more than 400,000 tickets, or, in simpler terms, Eddie Murray's salary ($2 million).

The Orioles are planning to open a similar baseball store in York, Pa., partly because Williams has told at least a couple of associates that baseball in Washington is "inevitable."

Yet it was Hoffberger and Peters, not Williams, who were responsible for the Designated Hitters, the booster group that is one reason season-ticket sales have zoomed.

Peters concedes that the Orioles took the idea from the Kansas City Royals Lancers, and he even had Kansas City owner Ewing Kauffman speak to the Baltimore copycat.

The idea is to sign up local business people to sell season tickets. In return, the Orioles reward the top DHs with baseball trips to Miami, Boston and the World Series and a non-baseball junket to London. Before Lou Michaelson became the Orioles' executive director of sales, he was the team's top DH seller in each of the group's first four years.

"The DHs started before Williams got here, but it couldn't have worked without his support," Peters said. "It's important because the thing about season tickets is that, in a good year, you'd probably sell the tickets anyway. In a bad year, like we've had the last two seasons, they sustain you."

If a dozen or so baseball owners tried to portray themselves as just getting by during last summer's negotiations for a new Basic Agreement, Williams did not.

"The Orioles make money," he said proudly.

More than a few baseball people say that not all the Orioles' changes have been for the better.

These people say the team's farm system is now a shadow of its former self, and that Williams, who says he makes more than a few baseball decisions himself, doesn't always work "in concert" with his baseball people, as the media guide says.

It was Williams, not Peters, who fired Joe Altobelli and brought Earl Weaver back as manager last summer, sources said. At the same time, they say Peters didn't argue with the move, although he surely would have preferred someone with a temperament closer to his own.

It was Williams, not Peters, who insisted on giving up a draft pick to sign free agent Juan Beniquez this winter.

It was Williams, not Peters, who brought Frank Robinson back as a coach last season, and Williams who recently hired Doug Melvin, 33, from the New York Yankees to act as a sort of assistant to both Williams and Peters.

Sources near the Orioles also say Williams' fiery temper is a far cry from what the Orioles were used to, and people who have talked to him after a tough loss know it. He wants pitchers to be sent out, pitchers to be brought up, players to be let go, etc.

Still, were it not for Williams' marketing strategies and his millions, the Orioles might not be in such good financial health.

Those millions brought in free agents Lee Lacy, Fred Lynn and Don Aase last winter at a time when the farm system was dry.

Those millions have also allowed the Orioles to keep the good players they already had. (In the last year, Murray and McGregor have signed long-term extensions, and shortstop Cal Ripken will begin negotiating one next winter.)

Before Williams, the Orioles had lost eight players in the free-agent re-entry draft. Since, they have lost only one, Don Stanhouse, and it was a baseball decision to let him go, Peters said.

"Of course, we're not the same," Peters said. "Someone asked me about working for Bill Veeck (and the St. Louis Browns). They wanted to know if everyone in the front office knew he was sending (midget) Eddie Gaedel up to pinch-hit. I got to thinking. I'm sure all the men knew, and if the women didn't know, it was because they weren't in the office that weekend.

"That was another era then. Teams were smaller, and organizations were smaller because payrolls were smaller. The game has changed in many ways, and you have to change with them."