ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Where did he go, Jim Traber? A year ago at this time, Traber was the toast of Baltimore. A local hero from Columbia, Md., he came out of the minor leagues to help lead the Orioles to within 2 1/2 games of first place. After that, the team fell from grace and Traber from sight.

He had been the quintessential phenom. With Eddie Murray nursing a pulled hamstring, Traber was called up from Rochester and responded with eight home runs and 22 runs batted in his first 17 games. A first baseman who didn't look like Lou Gehrig -- putting the best front on Traber would be to say he is barrel-chested as opposed to portly or paunchy. But for a number of glorious summer days, he hit like Gehrig.

He had the Orioles talking about the pennant in August. Traber said he wouldn't get married in October as he had planned because Baltimore might be in the World Series. That's how far the Orioles have slipped over the past 5 1/2 months of baseball.

When Murray returned, Traber became the team's designated hitter. He went four for four the first night, then had three hits the next night and his average soared to .373. But the Orioles had already begun moving in another direction and he went with them, finishing his Baltimore half-season at .255. He was mortal.

And, before this season began, he was sent to Class AAA Rochester.

"The first month and a half or so, I was basically feeling sorry for myself," he said in the Red Wings' clubhouse. "I thought I deserved a better chance. I felt I would get a better chance than I got. That kind of hurt me a little bit. And it hurt my start down here."

"His first month, month and a half of the season was wasted," said his Rochester manager, John Hart. "I know Jim's makeup. He felt he should have been in the big leagues. He tried to do too much at the plate. He was presssing, frustrated, overswinging.

"In late May or early June, he pretty much accepted the fact that he's going to have to do it here first."

"It took longer than it should have, and I can admit that now," said Traber, who finally shed his feeling of being unwanted by the Orioles. "I just realized that I'm here and I have to start hitting the ball, and things have gone a lot better since I've realized that."

He now has 44 RBI -- second on the team -- 11 home runs and 21 doubles. A streak hitter, he has hit safely in six of his last seven games and has raised his average to .263. "The last two weeks, I've been swinging real well. I feel that I can still have a good year."

Stylish, Traber isn't. But in effort, he's unstinting. He loves to play first base, and does it gracefully although his stature -- 6 feet, 215 pounds -- is not classical for a first baseman. He likes to get his uniform dirty; Monday night against Toledo, even though he lacks speed, he stole a base, getting into second with a head-first slide. It was his fourth steal of the season.

To play with the Orioles, barring some momentous trade of Murray, Traber, 25, would have to make it as a handyman -- an outfielder, a designated hitter, a left-handed pinch hitter, a backup first baseman. Rochester has been using him mainly in right field.

"Jim is adequate in the outfield only," said Hart. "He's going to be limited without speed. He'll get under a fly ball. He'll make the routine play. He has an accurate arm. This is his first full year playing the outfield." On Sunday, Traber ran a long way toward the foul line to make a good catch of a short fly ball. He gives his all.

"I think I've shown John Hart and the Orioles' management that I can play out there," said Traber. "I'm not going to hurt the team. I'm not going to be a great outfielder, but I can do a respectable job. And if I do hit the ball, then I can help the team."

When he says "the team," Traber still has the Orioles in mind as much as Rochester. One question about him: does he have to play first base to be most effective? His hitting decline in Baltimore came when he was moved off first and into the designated hitter spot.

"He's a better ballplayer when he plays first base," said Hart. "He's very competitive. His intensity level is a little higher playing first base. But we're trying to give him every opportunity to develop his outfield play."

"I don't mind DHing at all," said Traber. "If that's the role they would have me for in the big leagues, then that would be fine with me. I just want to be able to get there and show what I can do."

His switch from first base to DH with the Orioles "wasn't the reason" his hitting cooled, he said. "I think basically it was just me -- getting myself out, swinging at bad pitches, doing stupid things like that.

"I think that if you mentally prepare yourelf for each at-bat, then it doesn't matter where you're playing."

Clearly, he's "into" the games, and a Rochester team leader. On the dugout steps before the Red Wings took the field for Monday night's game in which Mike Flanagan pitched, Traber said to his teammates, "You ready to go?" And to Flanagan, "Ready, Mike?" "Okay, let's go to work." And up the steps they all sprang.

"I'm a very intense person on the field and sometimes I have to control my emotions, but I don't feel I have a real hot temper," said Traber. "I get mad at myself when I get myself out at the plate instead of the pitcher getting me out. Sometimes, I'll show it by throwing my helmet or getting a little upset."

During a recent game, he exhibited more than enough intensity, getting himself suspended and fined for a run-in with a home plate umpire, a jaw-to-jaw bumping affair, over balls and strikes.

"It was a big series with Columbus. He called a few bad pitches on me. I said a few things to him and he threw me out; I thought unjustly for what I said. I went a little wild on him. I was pretty upset. I got suspended {three games} and I paid for it {$250}. I'm sorry that I did that. I was wrong."

If he's big and blustery, he's big enough to admit error -- as, for example, he did last year when he apologized to an umpire in Baltimore the day after arguing a called third strike. "I looked at the video replay and told him I'm sorry," he said at the time. "It tailed back and caught the corner."

One thing about Traber, he cares a lot about playing, and winning -- a trademark of good Orioles teams. And he could yet be a sweet left-handed swinger along the lines of Jim Dwyer or Terry Crowley. Said Hart, "I think he's the kind of guy who's going to be a better big league hitter than minor league hitter, just from the idea that he feels he belongs up there, from the mental side of it."

The publicity he received when he came up last season was "hectic" for his parents in Columbia, and "a big time in everybody's life in my family."

"But I don't think the publicity affected me at all," said Traber. "I've been in the spotlight most of my career" -- as a star quarterback at Wilde Lake High School and as a sophomore quarterback at Oklahoma State and OSU's career batting average leader (.392; Robin Ventura, a current Cowboy, has hit .428 over two seasons).

The Orioles' 21st-round draft choice in 1982, his junior year of college, he became a successful pro hitter at every level, starting with Bluefield in the Appalachian League. Married now, a baby on the way, he looks forward to taking them back home, and to sticking with the Orioles.

"I still think that I can play for them," he said. "I hope they feel the same way."

For now, it's off to Columbus. Buoyed by going five for eight in games Sunday and Monday, Traber said, "Since I've come off the suspension, it's the best I've felt all year. I'm fired up about being out there. I can't wait to go into Columbus. I want to go in there and win some games."