The first workout of his 20th spring training was almost over, and Rick Dempsey was having words with the manager.

He had words with this manager, Earl Weaver, once in Toronto, and the media were ushered out when it appeared that words would become punches. He had words with this manager another time in Baltimore, and when there were no more words, there was catcher's gear flying between them.

Not this time. Today, the words were friendly -- two hot-tempered, competitive warhorses joking about the old days with a mixture of affection and humor.

Dempsey, the Baltimore Orioles' 36-year-old catcher, had just hit a pitch out of steamy Miami Stadium, and he stood in the batting cage admiring it.

"Keep standing there," coach and batting practice pitcher Elrod Hendricks told Dempsey, "and you'll get a curve ball."

"That's fine," Dempsey yelled, "because I can hit curve balls."

Weaver ran up to the cage and said: "Yeah, you can hit 'em when you know they're coming."

Dempsey: "A smart hitter knows when they're coming."

Weaver: "A smart catcher knows when to have his pitcher throw one."

On and on. They are part Felix and Oscar, part Tracy and Hepburn. Does Rick Dempsey hate or love Earl Weaver?

"I'd say a little of both," Dempsey said. "I hate to hear him screaming, but he makes us all better. He constantly reminds you of what you did to win -- or what you did to lose."

That they are even here together again and that Dempsey is again the Orioles' starting catcher is strange, because when last season ended, a new catcher was the team's first priority. Dempsey hit only .209 against right-handed pitching and his once-powerful throwing arm was a memory in 1985; and he will turn 37 in 1986.

Before the winter ended, the Orioles had talked to the San Diego Padres about Terry Kennedy and the Philadelphia Phillies about Ozzie Virgil and the Oakland A's about Mike Heath.

When they couldn't get a catcher, they went looking for a third baseman, because Floyd Rayford could shift from third to catcher. They did get one, Jackie Gutierrez from the Boston Red Sox, but the Orioles don't know if he can play this year.

(After reports of his erratic behavior in winter ball, Gutierrez has been in Baltimore this week being checked out by doctors. Today, the club still had not received a "medical opinion," Orioles General Manager Hank Peters said.)

So today, as the Orioles finished a snappy two-hour workout, Weaver said his starting catcher is . . .

Rick Dempsey.

"Look at it this way," said Weaver, the eternal optimist. "He's 36, but he's coming off the best offensive year of his career 12 home runs, 52 RBI . If there are guys he doesn't hit, we've got our leading hitter Rayford, at .306 able to give him a day off."

Not that Dempsey was going to give the job back. He has become perhaps the Orioles' hardest offseason worker, and when he showed up Thursday, he looked more like a linebacker than a catcher.

After seeing what a winter of weight work did last season for Carlton Fisk, then 37 -- 37 homers, 107 RBI for the Chicago White Sox -- Dempsey, too, hired a trainer (Ken Farmer).

"I worked hard for four months," he said. "The thing about having a trainer is that you get that little extra spark of intensity by having a guy there. I don't know what it's going to do for me, but I feel strong and confident."

The Orioles' bigger concern has been Dempsey's arm. After having one of the best throwing percentages his first seven seasons in Baltimore -- a 41 percent success rate against would-be base stealers -- he dropped to 30 percent the past two seasons.

His elbow and shoulder pain was so severe in 1984 that he took a form of acupuncture treatments during the Orioles' tour of Japan, and last summer, he finally relented and took a cortisone shot.

"There were a lot of factors besides the pain," Dempsey said. "I had a slight shoulder separation in 1984, and I'm not sure it healed completely. Right now, I feel everything's finally healed. My arm isn't what it once was, but it's good enough."

He has changed his batting stance so many times that his wife Joanie swears she woke up one night to find Rick standing in bed practicing a new stance.

After hitting 42 home runs in his first 11 major league seasons, he hit 23 in the last two years and said it's because he kept changing and changing and changing his stance until he hit on one that worked.

"I've moved up closer to the plate," he said proudly. "Now, I'm not giving up the outside pitch. I've also gone to a lighter bat, so I can handle the good fast ball a little better."

There's more. He said today: "I'm as excited about this spring training as I was my first one. If you can't get excited about playing this game, you'd better find something else to do."

Once, in a drill last spring, when he was determined to block just one more ball than Rayford, his competition, Rayford said: "He's driving me crazy."

He sometimes drives all the Orioles pitchers crazy. Ask the one who says Dempsey told him: "We can't keep throwing your curve ball today. It's breaking too much."

Ask reliever Tippy Martinez. Last season in Detroit, Dempsey called for a slider with a game on the line. Martinez struck out Lou Whitaker with the slider, but the kicker was: He had not thrown one in a game before. Why did Dempsey call for it?

"It seemed like a good time," he said.

If pitchers don't always like him, they complain less after he has spent an afternoon blocking six wild pitches, colliding with base runners while protecting the plate and climbing eight feet onto a screen to catch a foul ball.

There's still another side. The Orioles say he is one of their most tireless workers for charity and promotions and a good-will ambassador in a dozen other ways -- signing autographs, talking to fans, posing for pictures.

With homes in Los Angeles and Baltimore and the pension that goes with 13 years in the big leagues, Dempsey said he's financially set for life. Still, he wants to play into the 1990s, then stay in the game as a coach or manager.

"Why not?" he asked. "I've played for Earl enough that I've had a pretty good teacher. I know I've learned how to scream at people."