Ken Gerhart came here hoping -- not to make the Baltimore Orioles, but to make an impression. He has succeeded.

"You have to like the guy," Orioles Manager Earl Weaver said. "Any guy that can pop the ball out of the park like that . . . If this were 1977, when we needed rookies, he'd have made the team by now."

And this from Orioles General Manager Hank Peters: "You hear people talk about players who are capable of 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season. He's one of those guys. If he has the kind of year we expect of him, he'll be heard from again."

Gerhart is 24 and has had only two weeks of spring training. But the Orioles believe he can be the latest success story from a minor league system that has been one of the most proficient in baseball, although it recently has come in for criticism.

Here's the package. He's 6 feet, 185 pounds, and hit a homer every 13.05 at bats last summer, numbers that project to 38 homers in a 500-at-bat season.

He has made enough of an impression that the Orioles may be willing to trade right fielder Lee Lacy to make room for their three youngsters -- Larry Sheets, John Shelby and Gerhart. Because of the remaining $1.75 million on Lacy's contract and his age (37), he may not be tradeable.

No matter. When the Orioles talk about their future, Gerhart is in it.

Less than a year ago, it was uncertain whether he had a baseball future. He had to undergo hip surgery to relieve a pinched nerve that was causing severe pain in his legs and groin. The surgery was complex enough that doctors gave him the option of not having it -- and retiring.

"They scared me a little," he said, "but the real thing, besides baseball, was that if I didn't have it, I wouldn't be able to do normal things like play golf and tennis. After the surgery, though, they said everything had gone normally and that I should be able to play again."

He played only 68 games at Class AA Charlotte, finishing with a .279 average, 17 homers and 50 RBI. More important, Peters said, "He was really coming on when he got hurt."

Gerhart hit his third homer of the spring tonight and, in his first 11 games, his batting average is .273. His three homers lead the team.

He's almost certain to begin the season at Class AAA Rochester, and would be the Orioles' first call-up if a hitter were hurt or went bad. If the club is going bad and Gerhart is going good, he's almost certain to be called up, anyway.

The son of a Murfreesboro, Tenn., electrician, Gerhart has a slow drawl and an even slower walk. He has dreamed of the big leagues since his sophomore year in high school, when he gave up all other sports.

After high school, he helped Middle Tennessee State to the NCAA playoffs in 1981 and 1982, and when the Orioles made him their fifth-round pick that summer, he left school.

"My goal was to make the big leagues in four years," he said. "This is my fifth year, and I think I'm on schedule if you count the time I missed with an injury last year. But I came down here not knowing what kind of look I'd get. I really just wanted to make an impression.

"The home run against the Yankees in the Orioles' second game helped, but I was still surprised I started four games. Maybe I shouldn't start. I've only gone one for 11 off the bench."

He has an unusual stance -- very open (front foot away from the plate), similar to Eddie Murray's right-handed stance.

That stance is a product of a summer of working with Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley at Class A Hagerstown and Class AA Charlotte. When Crowley first saw him, he was hitting .140 at Charlotte and losing confidence.

"It was not a matter of changing his swing," Crowley said, "but when I opened him up, it allowed him to see the ball so much better. He's so strong he can get away with that kind of stance. The other thing I did was talk to him about what situations to look for the curve ball. Every hitter goes through it."

The difference was remarkable. Gerhart hit .201 in 85 games at Charlotte in 1984 and was demoted to Hagerstown. A year later, with the new stance, his Charlotte average was 78 points higher.

Regardless of whether he makes it or not, this spring has changed his baseball career forever. In the last five days alone, he has done about a half-dozen television interviews and appeared on a radio show.

"See what happens when you hit a few home runs," Weaver yelled to him during an interview.

Storm Davis was shelled for six hits and three runs in four innings, and the Orioles committed four errors in a 7-3 loss to the New York Yankees tonight.

Davis left the game after four innings complaining of a sore left calf, and Dennis Martinez followed. Martinez allowed five hits and one earned run in five innings.

Defense was again a major problem, as Alan Wiggins, Juan Beniquez, Jackie Gutierrez and Davis made errors.

"We've got to find some people who can throw and catch the ball," Manager Earl Weaver said. "What I have to do is find enough people who can drive in enough runs to win, and also catch it."