A tradition built over a quarter century isn't likely to disappear overnight. Nonetheless, the Baltimore Orioles should be worried.

Unless they're careful, they could wake up someday soon and discover that they've turned into the Boston Red Sox.

You'd never guess it by listening.

Thursday, Orioles General Manager Hank Peters said, "We fully expect to win the division." Manager Earl Weaver said his team reminded him of the 1969 Orioles, except "the pitching potential here is better." The '69 team won 109 games.

Here's the Orioles' official mythology: no team in Baltimore history has had as much power or more big-name stars or such a blend of offensive weapons as this one.

If proven pitchers (none of whom are old or injured) return to form, the World Series is a logical goal.

"The talent is here," say Peters and Weaver, almost like an echo.

But is talent enough?

The Orioles should know. They're the team that always said it wasn't.

These days, Baltimore runs the risk of becoming the kind of team it once mocked -- the expensive, exasperating gang that's less than the sum of its parts.

Why should the Orioles worry? Why should they look in the mirror? Why should they kick themselves in the rear anytime the idea crosses their minds?

Here's why. It's an ugly list.

*At one stage of their history, the Orioles finished first or second 14 times in 16 years.

The last two seasons, they've been fifth and fourth, with 85 and 83 wins. The Orioles haven't won so few games since 1958-1959. The past two years, the club has come close to quitting after Labor Day. A hard habit to break.

*For decades, the Orioles were a model of manners, always sensitive to those who had served long and well.

In the previous 18 months, Jim Palmer, Ken Singleton, Al Bumbry and Rich Dauer were released. All left kicking. Bumbry, the team's most dedicated community worker, was hurt not to be offered a quality job in the organization; he's in the Red Sox system now. Dauer, a 10-year Oriole, wasn't even given the courtesy of being invited to spring training here.

Sammy Stewart and Gary Roenicke were traded after decent seasons despite wishing to stay in Baltimore. Does that teach loyalty to The Oriole Way?

Joe Altobelli, less than two years after managing the team to a World Series title, was left to twist in the wind, then fired in humiliating fashion. "I always thought the Orioles did things with class," he said. "Not anymore."

*For 25 years, the Orioles' farm system was a league model. "Build from within," was the motto. Now, the farm system generally is considered poor. Except by those who think it's less than that. Former coach Ray Miller felt the Orioles' system was filled with aging castoffs and bargain-basement kids. "We are spending on free agents, not young prospects," he said. Owner Ed Williams also is openly critical.

*Once, the Orioles epitomized team chemistry, collective intelligence and responsible off-field morals.

The current Orioles have only 11 players back from the 1983 World Series champions. "Getting to Know You," is still the team song. Although a fairly bright club, it can no longer be called brainy. Of 21 players disciplined by Commissioner Peter Ueberroth for drug indiscretions, two have been acquired by Baltimore -- Lee Lacy, a clubhouse braggart, and Alan Wiggins, who tends to go into a shell.

For a generation, teams feared trading with the shrewd Orioles. This winter, Baltimore dealt Stewart to Boston for Jackie Gutierrez, only to learn that Gutierrez had severe emotional problems of which they were unaware. A trade that looked bad at first blush now looks worse.

*Finally, the Orioles always stood for great pitching. Last year, the team's ERA was the worst since the '50s. At the moment, no one in the Baltimore organization has a proven reputation as a handler or developer of pitchers.

At the moment, the Orioles are dangerously balanced on a sword edge.

On one hand, few teams have a more distinguished group of core veterans who are clutch stars and also exemplary team leaders: Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan and Mike Boddicker. Rick Dempsey's special, too. They're what's left of the Old Orioles.

Nobody has a better manager than Earl Weaver. If he isn't the cure, then the patient is terminal.

"He's chewing heads off again," rejoiced Floyd Rayford. This afternoon, just two intrasquad games into the spring, Weaver was cursing a blue streak about base-running mistakes during the very drills he'd just been supervising on the Little Field. Once, stomping on the field, he screamed, "It is not that bleeping hard, gentlemen."

After the workout, Weaver growled, "If a guy can't perform plays like that, he can't play up here . . . we had some bad performances . . .

"Boys," he said, raising his voice, "you're going to drive me to drink, bleepity bleep bleep." With that, he opened a beer, felt better and smiled.

Once, the Orioles possessed such serene confidence they almost seemed to welcome misfortune so they could illustrate how to surmount it. The whole 1983 season was a sermon on that text. Now, such organizational immunity to stress and lost confidence is at an ebb.

Most players are blown by the winds of a season, becoming elated during hot streaks, but falling prey to mental gremlins when they or the team slump. Not a sin, just human nature.

What made the 1977-to-1983 Orioles so special was their ability to rise above their individual self-doubt to find strength and confidence as a group. Now, that quality's much diminished. Shorn of their intangibles, the Orioles have been reduced to the factual.

That's why 1986 is crucial to the history of the Orioles organization. If McGregor rediscovers his fast ball and Boddicker his control, if Flanagan stays healthy and Ken Dixon gets a third pitch, if Davis and Dennis Martinez do some growing up, then, suddenly, "magic" will seem to exist once more.

Nothing creates morale like good pitching. If the team's winning, then go-with-the-flow folks like Lacy, Wiggins and Fred Lynn will swallow the Orioles mystique. And youngsters like Mike Young and Larry Sheets will think they're heirs to distinguished tradition.

Williams has opened his wallet for free agents. Peters has stuck out his neck in trades. Weaver has allowed himself to be begged out of retirement. What's left besides lighting candles?

For 25 years, the smart Orioles won more games than anybody. The only thing they never counted on was dumb luck.

They sure could use some now.