The telephone would ring at Floyd Rayford's apartment about once a week this winter, and the voice on the other end would be Baltimore Orioles General Manager Hank Peters or maybe a coach.

The message was always the same: Where were you yesterday when the pitchers threw at Memorial Stadium? Why aren't you working out?

Be careful, they said.

Rayford laughed about those warnings on a February plane ride to Florida, the day he was finally going to begin preparing for the 1986 season, the day he fasted and still came in 15 pounds too heavy. He was, as usual, happy, eager and wearing the cockiness a .306 batting average brings.

"Hey, look at it this way," he told a reporter, "I've got 42 days to get ready."

What he didn't count on was taking a foul ball off his right thumb in spring training and being forced to miss two important weeks of hitting. What he didn't count on was that the fastballs of 1985 would turn to curveballs in 1986, and by the time he was sent to Class AAA Rochester this week along with Mike Young and Alan Wiggins, he was completely baffled.

He recently told a friend, "I knew that guy was going to throw me a curveball, and I swung, anyway."

There's no moral to this story because while Rayford failed on nonwork, Young was a tireless worker, so much so that Eddie Murray called him "Muscles" because Young was so dedicated to weightlifting.

Rayford couldn't lay off low curves, but Young was eaten alive by high fastballs, and when word got around, he saw nothing but high fastballs. The Orioles told Young to hurry down to Rochester, get his problems straightened out and come back, but he knows there's no guarantee he'll ever be back.

There's also no guarantee either will be able to hit low curves or high fastballs, whether they stay in Rochester a week or a year. Limit to Patience

Sending them down was a bold, gutty move for the Orioles because proud organizations don't like to admit that their farm products have failed. In doing so, though, they sent a message around the Orioles' clubhouse that spread in about 20 seconds Thursday night: Their patience is not eternal.

"I feel bad for all three of them," one player said. "But it could have been worse. It could have been me."

Also, if this club finishes fourth or fifth, sending three guys to Rochester will be nothing compared to the roman candle coming this winter.

The Orioles aren't the only team getting jumpy about their season. The Detroit Tigers handed General Manager Bill Lajoie a slap this week when they brought in former Mets executive Joe McDonald to be the director of scouting and player procurement. That not only reduces Lajoie's power, but takes him away from his first love. The Detroit farm system is generally considered the weakest in baseball.

What the Tigers have in the majors hasn't been too bad. With Jack Morris almost untouchable, Detroit pitchers have allowed seven earned runs in 84 innings. Their team ERA at Tiger Stadium -- a hitter's paradise -- is 3.04, better than in the '84 championship season. It's 4.90 on the road.

Add Tigers: Outfielder Kirk Gibson is 15 solo hours and an FAA written exam away from his private pilot's license and already owns a Cessna 206 Turbo Prop. Piloting is prohibited in the standard player's contract, but the Tigers waived that clause for Gibson and took out an insurance policy . . .

Pedro Guerrero, out since spring training with a knee injury, may be activated Monday and play first base by the end of the week for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Meanwhile, current first baseman Greg Brock has asked to be traded and may be headed to the Philadelphia Phillies in a deal for center fielder Jeff Stone.

The Dodgers also are talking to the New York Yankees about a trade that would bring them outfielder Dave Winfield and cost them pitcher Bob Welch and others.

Not all the Dodgers are happy about Guerrero coming back to play first, one saying, "If Pete wanted to manage, they'd let him." . . .

The Cleveland Indians were 10 games above .500 in July for the first time since 1968. They're there because of an offense built around Joe Carter, Andre Thornton and Mel Hall, arguably the best three-man attack in the American League. They each have more RBI and more at-bats than 25 of the 39 hitters in the all-star game . . .

If the Boston Red Sox aren't worried about the Yankees, they should be. History says New York will catch the Red Sox. The last three seasons, New York has played .519 ball before the all-star break, .642 after . . . The Yankees haven't played well on Sundays, going 5-11 and having lost seven in a row since June 8 (getting outscored, 61-18). "Maybe we have some devil worshippers," Don Mattingly said . . .

When the Red Sox sent pitcher Mike Trujillo to the minors, he was so eager to get to a game in Portland, Maine, he took Rte. 93 instead of Rte. 95 and wound up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire . . . The moral to this story is: Don't lose to the Milwaukee Brewers. Oakland's Eric Plunk did last Sunday and was sent to the minors. Then California's Ron Romanick did Monday and was sent to the minors. (Plunk has since been recalled.) . . .

The A's are 9-5 under Tony LaRussa, who appears to have gotten Dave Stewart and his forkball straightened out (three victories in three starts). Everyone can complain about injuries, but no one more than the A's, who've had just two of their 10 pitchers available all season . . .

When Pittsburgh's Rick Rhoden pitched Tuesday, eight scouts showed up, including two from the Red Sox. Pittsburgh General Manager Syd Thrift said, if Rhoden isn't traded by Aug. 1, he won't be. "He won't clear waivers after that," he said. Powerless Braves

The Atlanta Braves through Friday had lost 14 of 16, dropping from 1 1/2 games out of first to 9 1/2, although yesterday's doubleheader sweep cut it to eight games back. When Bobby Cox took over as general manager, his first goal was to improve the offense, and his first four trades were for hitters -- Billy Sample, Ozzie Virgil, Ted Simmons and Ken Griffey. They've improved all the way from 3.9 runs per game to 4.0. Meanwhile, center fielder Dale Murphy hasn't homered since July 1. After averaging 36 homers and 110 RBI the last four seasons, he's on a 24-homer, 65-RBI pace this year.

He has company. San Diego's Steve Garvey went six weeks between home runs and is about to lose his first base job to John Kruk . . . After the Cardinals-Giants brawl this week, Jeffrey Leonard said the Cardinals were "a bunch of Gerry Cooneys." The Giants may have won the fight, but they lost their best pitcher, Mike Krukow, who is on the disabled list with bruised ribs . . .

Pitcher Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers is only 4-4 with a 6.25 ERA in his last 11 starts, and former roommate and teammate Sid Bream believes Hershiser feels badly about winning an arbitration case. "I know that bothers him," Bream said. "Normally, Orel has a cockiness about him on the mound. There's no cockiness now." . . .

The catches at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego are getting more and more interesting. Latest inventory includes: 14 skunks, four cats, two owls, one tortoise and one wren . . . Teammates at Brigham Young: Wally Joyner, Cory Snyder, Rick Aguilera and Scott Nielsen . . .

George Foster, riding the Mets' bench, is preparing to be released this winter (he'll receive a $1 million buyout): "I've got to stay ready, stay prepared and learn some Japanese."