It was three hours before game time and Alan Wiggins was again alone with his thoughts, stretched out in front of his locker, stocking feet propped up, head buried in a dog-eared paperback.

He was reading a dark, complex book, an account of the New Mexico prison riots called "The Hate Factory."

Wiggins remains the quietest of all the Baltimore Orioles, one who stays to himself, usually speaks only when spoken to and is a clique of one.

The Orioles got him from the San Diego Padres for two minor league players and, after almost a year of adjustment, he appears to be the leadoff hitter they had hoped he would be. His weapon has always been speed, and that speed has done for the Orioles the last two weeks pretty much what it did for the 1984 National League-champion Padres.

His speed distracts pitchers. It gets the rest of the batting order more fastballs. It creates runs (about six so far). And, it has helped him become, at the age of 28, potentially the best leadoff hitter the Orioles have ever had, certainly the best since Don Buford.

"He has shown us a few things, hasn't he?" Orioles Manager Earl Weaver said. "He's going to be an important piece of machinery in low-scoring games. His ability doesn't stand out as much in a 9-1 game as it does in a 3-1 game, and he's not the guy who can strike out three times and then step up and hit the ball out of the park. Right now, he's doing the things we got him to do."

When the Orioles got him, they admitted his adjustment would be great. He had just been through a drug-abuse treatment center for the second time, and he was facing, not only a new team, but a new city and a new league.

Could he adjust to life in a breaking-ball league? Could he learn to live in the East after a lifetime in the West? Could he play an adequate defensive second base on a team that didn't just need it, but demanded it?

He now has begun to play well after an awful spring training and a terrible regular-season start, hitting only .172 in April. But in the last two weeks, as the Orioles have gotten going, he has gotten going, becoming the catalyst of an offense that has yet to knock down many fences.

After getting three hits in Thursday's 5-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins, he had raised his average from .175 to .272, and in a stretch when the Orioles weren't hitting home runs, he and outfielder John Shelby, another flier, have been their most valuable offensive weapons, stealing 18 bases and scoring 27 runs.

The steals have surprised Wiggins as much as anyone because, when he joined the Orioles last July, he had no idea how much stolen bases would mean to a team that relied on three-run home runs.

"The way I looked at it, my role wouldn't be the same as it was in San Diego," he said. "The Padres weren't a power team. We'd have our top guy with, maybe, 15 home runs. Here, we have guys with the potential to hit 40, and being able to scratch out one run might not be as important.

"But as it has turned out, it is. The way I look at it is that speed is always there. You might not be able to hit home runs every night, but you're always going to be able to run. If you know how to use it, you can dominate a game. When the power's not there, speed can compensate."

In 25 games, Wiggins is nine for 12 in stolen bases and has scored 15 runs, second only to Lee Lacy's 16.

If the Orioles are excited, Wiggins is also excited, although you wouldn't know it if you didn't ask.

"This team is better than the '84 Padres, and that team won a pennant," he said. "We've got more ways to score runs, and our pitching in 1984 was as suspect as ours was coming into this season. The pitchers here now have proven they're capable of doing the job. In San Diego, we just sort of looked up in August and saw what kind of staff we had."

Most surprising is that he has only two errors in 25 games, this after making 14 in 76 games last season and 32 the year before, his first at second.

He said the adjustment from left field to second has been a long, slow process, and that it continues to be.

"The way I learned to play left field was by taking balls hit off the bat in batting practice," he said. "In batting practice, you get a lot of them because all the right-handed hitters try to pull the ball out of the park. You just can't do that at second because no hitter tries to hit them there.

"You can take ground balls from a coach all you want, but it's not the same. You can learn, but you have to learn the fields, how it's going to play that night, and all that. You learn to play the infield by playing it. There's no other substitute."

All along, he told anyone who would listen that he'd always been a slow starter, and that he wasn't concerned. He said even when Weaver benched him in Chicago April 29-30, he wasn't worried.

"I knew Earl was smarter than that," he said. "He wasn't going to give up on me just because I got off to a slow start. He could see I'd put stats on the board before, and that I'd probably do it again. Personally, I knew I'd get back in there sometime."