BALTIMORE, JUNE 25 -- It was the spring of 1984, the final days of Jim Palmer's magnificent career, and Scott McGregor remembers the conversation well. Palmer, struggling to regain the magic of his Cy Young Award seasons of 1973, '75 and '76 and unwilling to admit it might be lost forever, said, "I just want to go out and pitch the way I used to."

It was a sad, chilling admission from a pitcher who was revered both inside and outside the game for his talent, intelligence and professionalism, and now was either unable or unwilling to make the adjustment from power to finesse.

Palmer's career ended a few weeks later, and that conversation has rung in the ears of McGregor and Mike Flanagan a hundred times or more the last couple of weeks and months as they, too, wonder why they can't pitch the way they once did, why they are 2-12 when they feel like 15-4.

The Baltimore Orioles are spending a long, dreadful season searching for answers to many questions, especially about their drafting and player-development process, about their long-term financial commitments to older players such as Fred Lynn and Lee Lacy and about the failure of their young pitchers to develop.

Yet none of those problems is as puzzling as this one: What happened to Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan?

They were keys to the Orioles' World Series championship teams of 1979 and 1983 and, as recently as 1984, they were still excellent, winning 28 times and throwing 20 complete games and five shutouts.

Since then, nothing. They're a combined 38-57, and this year 2-12 with an embarrassing 6.35 ERA. Publicly, the Orioles say things like: "We're not giving up on them." Privately, they say things like: "They're finished."

At the moment, Flanagan is on the disabled list with a sore left elbow while McGregor has been demoted to the bullpen for a second time and is trying "to get back into some kind of groove. I get everything going for a few pitches, then it leaves me."

Publicly, both are confident they'll be able to come back and pitch effectively again, but they both admit to not yet having found answers. In simplest terms, they've failed for two reasons: McGregor lost his pinpoint control, Flanagan his curveball.

If they don't get them back, their careers are over. If they somehow do -- and there's no reason to believe that will happen -- the Orioles might be respectable for the last four months of this lost season.

Flanagan, on the disabled list for the fourth time in five years, realizes his next comeback may be his last with the Orioles. He has often talked about retiring to his New Hampshire home and spending a few years writing books or songs, or something.

But all of that sounded romantic and interesting when he was 27 or 28 -- not now when he's a few months from 36. Now, he wants to play the game that has obsessed him since childhood.

So he spends a few hours each day taking therapy on his left elbow, throwing from a mound or working on a couple of new pitches, one a forkball that has great movement "two of every four times."

"So far so good," he said. "I think this break came at a good time because now I'll come back and start fresh. When I was 0-5, I felt like I had to win two or three games every time I went out. I'm throwing 87-88 mph in the bullpen, which is good enough to get by on. The curveball has been okay, but I haven't thrown to a hitter yet. That, ultimately, will be what decides if I can come back or not."

He said the forkball is no gimmick, adding, "I've got the time to work on it, so I'd be crazy not to. It has made some guys' career: Bruce Hurst's, for instance. It allowed Jack Morris to pitch 290 innings. Mike Scott went from being a .500 pitcher to unhittable."

Yet, while he remains an optimist, he's also a realist. Nothing comes easy anymore.

"I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "It depends on where you are that day. If you'd asked me last year when I was pitching well, I'd say I could go another four or five years. If you'd asked me this spring, I'd have said this might be it. I just don't know."

If his career is over, it would be one of the most interesting/sad/complex ones ever for an Oriole.

Few ever started better because in 1979, at the age of 27 and in just his third full year in the major leagues, he went 23-9 and won a Cy Young Award. Since then, he has bounced from one injury to another, from arm problems to a knee injury to a torn Achilles' tendon to a sore elbow the last two years.

And there are other intangibles.

"I pitched behind Steve Stone {in 1980}, and it seemed the bullpen was always used up," he said. "I pitched behind Palmer when he was no longer finishing games. That's one reason I never had any 15-4 seasons; because when I went out there, I was out there for the decision. It never bothered me because I was the one able to do it. I always assumed that, when I turned 35 or 36, I'd be the one using up the bullpen."

So he kept going to the mound. In 10 years, he pitched better than 200 innings six times, more than 250 innings three times. Now, having passed 2,100 innings for his big league career, there's the fear that his arm and elbow are simply worn out.

Then there is the matter of run support. A year ago, the Orioles scored three runs or less in 14 of his 28 starts, and turned what should have been a decent season into a 7-11 disappointment.

And over the last three years, the Orioles have scored three runs or less in 34 of his 70 starts. This year, even as he has pitched badly, he was given only two early leads (he gave them both back in the next half inning).

"There's no explaining that stuff," he said. "I tend to be an optimist, and I think that every time I go out I'm going to get six or seven runs and begin an eight-game winning streak."

Because of that attitude, along with his wit, intelligence and ability to persevere through injuries, he may be every Oriole's favorite Oriole, a standard by which many others have been measured.

"He and Eddie {Murray} are the last ones from that class of '77," one teammate said, "and they've set a pretty high standard for young players. They went out and played every day, no matter what. They didn't make excuses, and they come to the park every day thinking there's about to be a 10-game winning streak."

McGregor is a different story in many ways, beginning with money. Flanagan has a one-year, $625,000 contract and must pitch well to be offered another. McGregor is almost certain to be back next season and the season after that because he has about $2.5 million left on a four-year, $4 million contract.

It may be unfair, but several Oriole officials trace his decline to the day he signed that contract, hinting that when he got the money he lost his desire. If not, what other explanation is there for having a career ERA of 3.76 before the contract and 4.95 since?

McGregor has admitted occasionally spending more time working with his church than his baseball, but says, "That's only human nature. When something isn't going well, you tend to rely more on something that is going well."

His problems, he said, go deeper than money or motivation.

"I've just gotten into some bad habits," he said. "I go out and feel confident in the bullpen, then don't take it into the game. There's such a fine line, and I'm on the wrong side of it. I know I can still go out and pitch well, but I've got to get back to making good pitches."

He admits to having tried almost everything, from fiddling with new pitches to changing his windup. His problem is that he once could throw a pitch anywhere, but he no longer can. That's especially true of a change-up that used to be one of the best single pitches in the game.

When it's in a good location, it has batters slapping hollow-sounding fly balls to center. When it's too hard or too low, it's a home run.

"I was talking to Tommy John the other day," McGregor said, "and he reminded me that just a few little things can make a big difference.

"It's frustrating because sometimes I still pitch as well as I ever did, but I can't stay in a groove. It's nothing beyond that. It's not that I can't pitch anymore; nothing like that. I'm not throwing any harder or slower than I ever did."

How frustrated is he?

"Just say frustrated," he said. "But the only thing I can do is relax and try to find the key. I've gone through this before, but never over this long of a stretch."

The Orioles announced today they have signed left-handed pitcher Chris Myers, 18, their No. 1 pick in the recent free agent draft.

He is expected to report this weekend to Bluefield, W.Va., in the rookie Appalachian League.