The collapse of the Baltimore Orioles didn't happen overnight and, because it can't be repaired overnight, it now appears the next nine months will be among the most exciting and challenging in the team's history.

It will be a time when the people who run the Orioles finally will realize that their organization is no longer one of the best in the game, that it has gotten old, a little bit stodgy and fallen philosophically behind the Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics and others.

It will be a time when as many as a half-dozen people will lose their jobs. Owner Edward Bennett Williams has been extremely patient with his minor league department, even though he has said several times he didn't think it was doing its job.

Now, even though he's not commenting, several people near him would be stunned if he didn't make some major changes. They say he has always been quick in keeping his law firm young and aggressive, and that he did the same with the Orioles' marketing department. He never touched the baseball end of it because, ultimately, the Orioles always competed for or won division titles.

But even as he didn't tamper with the farm system, he must have had some warning bells ringing in his ears. Again and again, he asked questions about why the Orioles' minor leaguers weren't ending up with the Orioles or being traded to other major league teams. He was always told to be patient, that the kids were almost ready and to please ignore press reports that the farm system was a mess. He has consistently told reporters, "I'm tired of them BSing me. They think I buy it."

But if he didn't buy what they were saying, he didn't run them out of town, either. The closest he has come to making a change was bringing in former Yankees scouting director Doug Melvin to act as an executive assistant to General Manager Hank Peters. He has also said he's grooming Melvin to replace Peters in 1990 or so, but probably will promote him to farm director this winter when current farm director Tom Giordano is re-assigned or let go.

In turn, that should lead to a shakeup of the scouting staff and, maybe, the minor league coaching staff. The most frustrating thing about all of this is that, even if Williams were to start the housecleaning today, he might not see results for another five years, which is when the next generation of draft picks is ready for the major leagues.

In the meantime, he can second-guess a couple dozen moves and non-moves that have contributed to the Orioles' decline. Bad personnel decisions were made. Free agents had to be hired. Minor league teams loaded up on former major leaguers who were trying to wait out the next line of expansion.

Surely the Orioles already rue a couple of monumentally foolish decisions in the last 12 months. One happened in May 1986, when free-agent pitcher Dave Stewart (at the recommendation of coach Frank Robinson) showed up in Baltimore and asked for a tryout.

The Orioles said no, even telling Stewart (he says) that he wasn't as good as some pitchers on their AAA team at Rochester. The A's were in Baltimore that day, and Stewart got a tryout with them; in the 13 1/2 months since, he's won 18 games.

Another mistake occurred last winter when coach Elrod Hendricks recommended that the Orioles think about signing pitcher Dennis Martinez, a former Oriole and Baltimore resident. Hendricks had been Martinez's winter catcher and was amazed at his new forkball.

The Orioles said no. Martinez re-signed with the Montreal Expos a few weeks ago and, after working into shape at Indianapolis, is off to a 3-0 start. Now, they must wonder where they'd be with Martinez (3-0) and Stewart (9-7) in their rotation.

But in a long, slow decline, one or two personnel decisions are only part of the problem. Here are some of the others: Drafting

Oriole scouts simply haven't done their jobs well. The Orioles haven't had a top pick make it since Rich Dauer (1974), and they had a couple of drafts that were complete washouts. Their excuse has been that signing free agents has cost them first-round picks, but the Orioles haven't drafted well in any round.

Even today, baseball people ask, "What happened? They used to be the standard for all of us."

Here's what happened: A lot of good scouts left. Joe McIlvane went to run the New York Mets. Larry Himes went to, first, the California Angels, then the Chicago White Sox. Superscout Ray Poitevint went to help Harry Dalton rebuild the Milwaukee Brewers. Dave Ritterpush left. Another first-rate scout, Dick Bowie, died.

"That's a tremendous bleeding of talent," one American League general manager said, "and they haven't replaced them with good people. How many of them have been offered better jobs by other teams lately? They can make any excuses they want, but their drafts have been consistently bad. Another thing is that what scouts they do have aren't paid very well."

Baseball people constantly point to scouting and drafting as the single most important decisions a team makes each year. But to arrive at those decisions, they must depend on the advise of people they seldom see and reports that are filed by mail. In almost every front office, there's a sneaking suspicion that some scouts aren't working hard. Is a guy really driving three hours to see a high school kid, or is he phoning the coach and filing a report based on that?

It's hard to tell, but in other organizations, cross-checks are made and records kept. The Orioles apparently shred their scouting reports as if they were top secret cables.

The bottom line: Player development is irrelevant if you don't first get the right players in your system. Once you get them, it's hard to mess them up. A Failing Farm System

Those minor leaguers who have gotten to the big leagues fit a mold: they can't play defense; they can't hit both right-handed and left-handed pitching; they're slow as armadillos, and their baseball instincts are awful.

Result: Dumb plays, an almost total reliance on the three-run homer and a lot of games that have not made managers named Earl Weaver and Cal Ripken Sr. look very good.

The Orioles farm system hasn't produced an everyday player since Cal Ripken Jr. and a pitcher since Mike Boddicker. Even Boddicker is a fluke because it was Weaver who told him to find a new pitch. Boddicker went back to the minors and suffered through a couple of terrible years while perfecting the foshball pitch that saved his career.

By contrast, the Toronto Blue Jays and others look for players who can run and throw. Hitting, they believe, can many times be taught, but speed and defensive skills are athletic talents and must be drafted. And Once They Get Them...

The club's major league staff has been stunned this season that the rookie pitchers have come to the big leagues without knowing much about pitching, about such things as pitch location, changing speeds and the art of setting up a hitter.

"It looks like the priority has been to win at Charlotte and Rochester, not at Baltimore," a prominent club source said. "They come up and they make pitches that get outs at AAA, but they have no idea what it takes to win in the big leagues. Maybe the farm people have been so afraid they were going to be fired that that was all they cared about. That's a big change. It used to be the goal was to get them ready for Earl. Period. Nothing else mattered. You could throw a no-hitter at AAA and get chewed out for a dozen pitches. You were told, 'That pitch will work here, but you'll get your block knocked off in the big leagues.' These guys come up now and their mechanics are terrible, and they have no idea how to pitch. It's like sending them back to the second grade. I think we need to get our farm people thinking a little differently." Peters and Job Security

Naturally, the Orioles general manager must assume an overwhelming part of the responsibility, but, for a couple of reasons, it'll be the farm director and scouts who lose their jobs. One reason is practical. Peters has two more years at better than $200,000 per year left on his contract, and Williams hates paying what he calls "alimony."

The other reason is Williams himself. He can blame Peters for the bad teams, but their philosophies have never meshed. It was Williams who insisted on giving millions to free agents and it was Williams who insisted on trading for Alan Wiggins.

His argument was that he had to make the moves because the farm system was dry. Peters' argument is that the farm system would have produced enough people to stay competitive.

"That's not the greatest marriage," a friend of both men said. "I think either Williams ought to fire him or learn to let Hank run the team. The way it is now is terrible. You've got a little of this philosophy, a little of that philosophy."

Peters says that the farm system is not as bad as it appears and that he is working to weed out the scouts who aren't doing their jobs. "We realize there have been problems," he said, "and we're looking at how to fix it." Bring Back the Real Orioles

One of the Orioles' trademarks used to be consistency. One generation dissolved into another and the former generation taught the new one how to play.

Therefore, it's absolutely unconscionable that ex-Orioles such as Al Bumbry and Lee May were allowed to work elsewhere. They know the game and had taught it to a generation of young players. In the clubhouse, they were valued both as players and people. May recently resigned as hitting coach of the Kansas City Royals and is "home fishing," waiting for another job offer.

Bumbry has helped the Boston Red Sox develop rookies such as Ellis Burks, Todd Benzinger and Mike Greenwell, although he badly wanted to stay with the Orioles. How badly did the Orioles want him? He was offered $15,000 a year to stay, about half what the Red Sox offered.

"You know, the strange thing is he still wants to come back," a friend of his said this week. "Even with the way they treated him, he thinks of himself as an Oriole."

It's likely the overhaul of the Orioles may begin in full this winter, and the names of Bumbry and May will be prominently mentioned. The next move may be to name Hendricks pitching coach, a job many people believe he should have had when Ray Miller resigned two years ago. Robinson may yet be moved to a management position.

Whatever, some moves have to be made. A mention of the Orioles was once one of baseball's catch words for class, intelligence and efficiency. That's history now.