The Baltimore Orioles' message to John Stefero is clear this spring: Don't mess up, and you're back in the big leagues.

John Stefero?

With infielder Jackie Gutierrez apparently no longer in the Orioles' plans, more than one member of the front office this week called Stefero "perfect" for the role of 24th man.

Not only is he a left-handed hitting catcher, one scouts rated as the International League's best defensive receiver last season with Rochester, he is a first-rate pinch hitter. He also hits for power and has a track record of hitting in clutch situations.

John Stefero?

Once, he was going to be a star. If he wasn't exactly tall, dark and handsome -- he's 5 feet 8, 184 pounds, and third-base coach Cal Ripken Sr. calls him "Stumpy" -- he was at least what the Orioles needed at a time they were convinced Rick Dempsey never would hit much.

They got their first up-close glimpse of him in the 1983 pennant race, and at the age of 22, in a whirlwind tour of the majors, Stefero got five hits in 11 at bats.

Two of those hits beat the Milwaukee Brewers on back-to-back nights during a pennant race, and another was a ninth-inning bases-loaded double off the New York Yankees' Goose Gossage that sent a game into extra innings.

"There were some moments in there I can never forget," he said quietly today. "When you get a taste of the big leagues, you want to get back. People who've been there will tell you the minor leagues is not a real easy life."

He said it's a life of buses and Big Macs, and he should know. Since 1983, he has not been back to the big leagues and didn't even get invited to spring training a year ago. This year, he is here as a nonroster invitee, perhaps the most intriguing one in camp.

"We heard great things about him," Manager Earl Weaver said. "We hear he came off the bench last year and hit with power. We heard he was a good receiver. It just depends on what he does in the games."

Ideally, the Orioles would like to send catcher Al Pardo (.133 batting average in 75 at bats) back to Rochester to play every day. If Gutierrez had been able to play, he would have allowed Floyd Rayford to shuttle between third and catcher.

But without Gutierrez -- who was acquired in December from Boston but has undergone psychological examinations and apparently is incapable of playing this season -- Rayford may have to play third every day. That leaves only Dempsey behind the plate. Dempsey hit only .209 against right-handed pitching last year, and Stefero is a left-handed hitter, and . . .

"It makes sense, doesn't it?" Weaver said.

It also would be a remarkable comeback.

Here's what happened to John Stefero: The year after his 1983 success, he came to spring training with what he admits was a bad attitude. His teammates said it was worse than that, that he never understood he was still no more than a kid trying to make it.

Many remember the spring training game when he came back from pinch-hitting, and within earshot of Manager Joe Altobelli yelled: "How can they expect me to hit when I get up once every 10 days?" No manager likes to be shown up by anyone, much less a kid player.

Not long after that he was sent to the minor leagues and apparently was shocked by it. He had some injuries that summer -- a cracked kneecap was the worst one -- but the injuries weren't as bad as his attitude.

Former teammates said he berated them, that he sometimes refused to warm up pitchers in the bullpen and that he complained long and loud about almost anything.

"I think he felt the way a lot of us felt," said Nate Snell, who broke into the big leagues in 1984 at age 32. "In the minors, everyone has a bad attitude to some extent because you think you ought to be in the big leagues. He just let everyone else know it, too. He's much more relaxed now, and more mature, too."

If his teammates got tired of him, so did the Orioles, who eventually demoted him all the way back to Class A -- from the big leagues to Hagerstown in one year.

The Orioles privately say they understand him a little better than he thinks they do. He has had a couple of devastating personal tragedies, which neither he nor club officials will talk about.

Talk to him now and he's almost mellow. He is polite, he is articulate and he is not brash. He said he is growing up, that he got married in February 1985, and that at 26, he needs the work.

He's not certain how many more chances he's going to get, but wants to "hang on until there's expansion."

Something may happen more quickly than that.

"Even though I'm not on the roster, I do feel good about my chances," he said. "Just to feel that they're interested in me puts me in a good frame of mind. People said I had a bad attitude. Well, that's true. I thought I should be getting more playing time, and I couldn't understand why I wasn't. I let people know about it."

By the end of last season, he was back in Class AAA, but he hit only .188 in 49 games at Rochester and .219 in 169 games at Class AA Charlotte.

"I don't know why his average was that low," Weaver said. "That's one of the things we're going to look at this spring, but we did get good reports on his coming off the bench and hitting."

He finished with 17 home runs in 297 at bats for the two clubs, and that pace translates to a 29-homer season if he were to get 500 at bats.

More than that, Weaver hopes that because he is a fast ball hitter he may be perfect for late-inning situations.

"I don't know, but I'm thinking he's better in situations where the pitcher has men on base and has to throw him a fast ball," Weaver said. "Maybe it's when he's playing everyday and swinging at curve balls in the dirt that he doesn't do well."

Regardless, Stefero said he's not even going to consider his chances.

"If I do that, it may build up my expectations," he said. "I'm going to forget that stuff and just go out and play the best I can."

Weaver said that even if the Gutierrez-for-Sammy Stewart trade with the Red Sox were voided because of Gutierrez's health, he didn't expect to see Stewart back in an Orioles uniform. "I don't think that's going to happen," he said. "I think they'd get another player or something along those lines."

Stewart yesterday told United Press International: "They should have checked it out when they made the trade . . . I've made some commitments. I bought a home in the Boston area. I'll be forced to sue them if the deal is overturned . I couldn't play for the Orioles. My heart wouldn't be in it. They said some things when the trade was made, that they got the better of the deal. Well, Jackie Gutierrez hasn't done what I've done. I could never go back to Baltimore."

Weaver broke up the monotony of spring training by having his pitchers play a game called One-Eyed Cat today, which allows the pitchers to hit as well as pitch . . . Mike Flanagan was the first pitcher Weaver used and continues to be the most impressive so far. One of the others in camp is 26-year-old Jim Boudreau, the son of Lou Boudreau.