CHICAGO, JULY 21 -- Dave Schmidt was raised the son of a Southern California history teacher who coached Little League and Colt League. From the beginning, baseball was serious stuff.

"My dad taught me it was important to do things right," he said. "He's the one who formed my approach to the game and, as a result, I've always been pretty organized about it."

He is more than that. In a Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse today where Bill Ripken is shouting insults at someone and Floyd Rayford and Eddie Murray are telling jokes about each other, he's the quiet one. He's the one who dresses quietly and goes about his business quietly. He's also the one who hasn't been able to leave his few bad performances in the clubhouse.

"I take it with me," he said. "I've always been that way. I don't think you can just leave the game on the field if you're serious about it."

He says it's easier to be serious when you're the one who can't take a 92-mph fastball to the mound and you're the one whose family has been uprooted three times in the last two years.

He remembers the time in Class A ball when he took an 8-0 record into a game and was completely rattled because comedian Max Patkin spent the evening in the coaching box, dugout or on-deck circle. Schmidt lost his only decision of the year.

After the game, he fumed in the clubhouse and remembers Patkin coming up and apologizing.

"Hey, Max, I don't need this stuff," he remembers telling him. "I'm down here trying to get out of the minor leagues, and you're making a joke of this thing."

So the eyes burn darkly and the face seldom ever cracks more than a small smile. He said he took it hard when the Texas Rangers traded him two winters ago and the Chicago White Sox released him last winter.

He can look back and smile now, especially at the White Sox, who dared him to find a team that would pay him $400,000 to pitch middle relief.

"Even when they released me, they said they'd bring me back to spring training, but that I'd have to take a 40 percent pay cut," he said. "They dared me to find someone to pay me the same money I'd made in '86 and, luckily for me, I did."

In an odd season, he easily has been the Orioles' most pleasant surprise, although not a truly startling one.

General Manager Hank Peters said he had tried to trade for Schmidt a couple of times, then when he read he'd been released could hardly pick up the phone fast enough.

What he expected to get was a smart, tough middle reliever with a durable arm. In six big league seasons, Schmidt had some impressive numbers, especially a 3.18 ERA and an average of 2.45 walks per nine innings. A year earlier, the Orioles had let a couple of dozen games get away because middle relievers squandered leads or let deficits become even bigger deficits. Schmidt, Peters thought, can solve part of that.

Which he did. As a reliever, he was 6-1 with one save and a 3.38 ERA. Then on June 9, when the Orioles desperately needed starters, he was thrown into the rotation. He pitched six scoreless innings that night and left with a 1-0 lead the bullpen turned into a 2-1 loss. Five days later, he allowed Toronto one earned run in 7 1/3 innings and, ever since, has been the Orioles No. 2 starter behind Mike Boddicker.

His most recent start was Sunday in Kansas City when he allowed the Royals one run in seven innings of a 5-1 victory. That game ran his record to 10-2 and lowered his ERA to 2.95. Opponents are hitting only .221. He has done it in style, too, walking only 16 in 97 2/3 innings and none in his last 20 2/3 innings.

"He has just been great, no question about that," Orioles Manager Cal Ripken Sr. said. "He has given us a boost where we most needed it. We talk about getting performances out of certain positions. Well, he has done everything we've asked and more."

Peters pays him the ultimate compliment, saying: "He carries himself in a very professional way. You appreciate the way he goes about his business."

Schmidt, in his own way, says he couldn't be happier. He said he'd always considered himself a starting pitcher, which he had been through his minor league career. But when the Rangers brought him to the big leagues in 1981, the team was loaded with veteran starters, and his only place was in the bullpen.

"I think I made myself into a pretty good reliever," he said. "But I'd always wanted to start. They did give me a chance in 1982, and I didn't do well.

"My arm just blew out and, everytime I mentioned starting after that, they said my arm couldn't take it."

He said the dream of starting never faded, and that, if he's serious about his work, it's because he has to be.

"I found out real early that I didn't have the kind of arm that could overpower people," he said. "Tom Seaver told me that each pitch had three variables: velocity, location and movement. He drilled into me that you could get by on two of those three, but that you had to have two of them. That's simple for me because I don't have the velocity, so I have to have the movement and location."

He had that conversation with Seaver last summer during his season with the White Sox, and said he also talked a lot with Steve Carlton.

"I was lucky," he said. "I looked up one day, and there were two {future} Hall of Famers in the same clubhouse with me. I'd be crazy if I didn't go over and try to get inside their brains. The thing is, they both loved to talk about pitching.

"Carlton said he would never read the sports sections during the season. He said he didn't like the fact that, when you're going good they write that you're great, and when you're going bad they write that your bad. He said he tries to get his mind on an even keel the entire year, and that anything that might disrupt that is a distraction."

Schmidt, 30, said Carlton and Seaver emphasized things he already knew about the game. He said his career probably turned around at Class AA Tulsa when he perfected what turned out to be his best pitch -- a palmball that looks like a mediocre fastball until it drops.

"That's the one people notice because you see hitters lunging at it and all," he said. "But the other key is just to go throw pitches for strikes. If you're ahead in the count, they have to hit your pitch. I've been knocked out early twice, and what happens is that you're just not getting your pitches over. That's especially true with me because I'm not going to overpower anyone. If I don't have location and movement, I'm in trouble."

A sociology major at UCLA, he's four classes short of his degree and says: "I've got 13 years to get it. The credit I've built up is good for 20 years, and I've been out seven, so the clock is ticking."

Besides thinking of returning to school, his only escapes from the game are his two children and golf. He lives near Los Angeles in the winter and plays golf about five days a week "from 7 a.m. to noon." He spends the rest of the time with his wife, 3-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter.

"I'm gone so much during the season that I try to be with them every day during the offseason," he said. "It gets harder and harder to leave home. My little boy is upset when I go, and it won't be long until my little girl starts getting upset, too. That's the down side."

The up side is that, after five years in the big leagues, he's doing exactly what he wants to do and the way he wants to do it.