BALTIMORE -- On the first day of his professional baseball career, Larry Sheets stepped into a batting cage in Bluefield, W.Va., and hit five consecutive pitches out of the park.

It was the summer of 1978, the day a new draft class gathered for the first time, and many of the Baltimore Orioles still haven't forgotten the moment.

"It was an awesome sight," said Orioles trainer Richie Bancells.

That draft also brought the Orioles Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Boddicker, but on that spring day, it was a strapping high school kid from Staunton, Va., who made the best first impression.

Larry Sheets, they said, was going to be a star.

Nine years later, after three abrupt retirements, after starting seven seasons in the minors and after almost being sent back to Class AAA Rochester as recently as 1986, he has made it.

He leads the Orioles with a .329 batting average, and his 16 home runs and 56 RBI trail only Ripken and Eddie Murray. He's hitting .346 with runners in scoring position and has produced one RBI every 4.29 at-bats, second only to Oakland's Mark McGwire in the American League.

Once a platoon player who faced only right-handed pitching, he usually plays against everyone. He still crushes right-handers -- a .353 average -- and holds his own against lefties (.260).

"He has earned a chance to play every day," Orioles Manager Cal Ripken Sr. said, "and I know it's important to him to be in there against all pitching."

Finally.

"It's been a long road," Sheets said, "and I've had kind of an unusual career. But I can't say I'm unhappy about the way things have turned out. I'd be silly to say that."

It was supposed to turn out this way, just not this slowly.

In the summer of 1978, when the Orioles scouts visited Bluefield, they could hardly believe their good fortune. This hadn't been a good draft, it had been an extraordinary one. With two second-round picks, they'd come away with a pair of big, strong, smart hitters, players who could fill holes for years to come.

Ripken didn't disappoint them. He hit .264 in Bluefield that summer, and a little more than three years later, was in the big leagues.

Sheets had an even better first year, leading the Appalachian League with 48 RBI and finishing second with 11 homers. The Orioles figured he, too, was on schedule.

Then, in the spring of 1979, he stunned the Orioles by announcing he was giving up baseball to attend Eastern Mennonite College. The game, he said, was no fun. That began a five-year, on-again, off-again relationship with the game.

"I just wasn't interested in playing anymore," he said. "I didn't know if it was what I wanted to do the rest of my life. I didn't know if I wanted to put in the necessary time. I was from a small town, and all my high school friends were in college. What appealed to me then was going back home, getting a degree and maybe becoming a teacher. Looking back on it now, it was probably the most bothersome three or four years of my life."

He doesn't deny his religion was a factor. He said he was never entirely comfortable with the life style of a baseball player, saying, "I wasn't one to go out after games, so I'd have to go back to the apartment alone. It was a pretty lonely time."

One club official said, "It offended him that some players cursed or drank beer. He didn't like the bad language."

"I think I've learned to accept people for what they are now," Sheets said. "I used to not be good at that."

Yet, even as he wanted out, he kept coming back. He returned to Bluefield in 1979 for the final three games of the season and said he was again interested. Then he didn't show up at spring training in 1980 and told club officials he was retiring.

In June, he changed his mind once more and reported to Bluefield, where he put together an outstanding season, leading the league in homers (14) and driving in 47 runs in 37 games. He was promoted to Class AA Charlotte by the end of the year and seemed serious because that October he had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

However, when he got home that winter, he again changed his mind, and this time, the move looked permanent. He missed the entire 1981 season and didn't show up for spring training in 1982, spending his time at Eastern Mennonite as a basketball player and assistant baseball coach.

It was about this time that he met his wife Sharon at Eastern Mennonite, and when Sheets traces the twists and turns in his career, this is the biggest one.

"She knew it was still in the back of my mind," he said, "and she said, 'Okay, if this is what you want to do, I'll stand by you. I'll be there for you.' And she has been. All of a sudden, I didn't have to go home to an empty apartment. She gave up a good job at a chemical company to be with me during baseball season. That's quite a sacrifice."

So, with her backing, he went to Class A Hagerstown in June 1982, and played in 88 games. He attended spring training for the first time in 1983 and, by the end of 1984, had been promoted to the majors.

Even then, the story was complicated. On the Orioles' 1984 postseason tour of Japan, he hit .400 and convinced a lot of people he was ready for the big leagues.

He made the team that spring, and in his rookie season hit 17 homers and drove in 50 runs as a platoon player and designated hitter.

Then the next spring, he didn't hit. Just as Manager Earl Weaver had him ticketed for Rochester, an injury to Floyd Rayford created a roster spot. Again, Sheets produced, hitting 18 homers and driving in 60 runs.

Again, he came to spring training without a job. This spring, the Orioles planned to play Ken Gerhart in left field and John Shelby in right and use Mike Young as the designated hitter. Sheets, they said, would be a pinch hitter and part-timer.

Sheets said his emotions were hard to control, that he was at once frustrated, angry and worried. "Why do I have to prove myself?" he asked at one point. "I've hit 35 homers and had 110 RBI in 666 at-bats. That's not too bad."

More recently, he said, "I didn't handle that very well. In fact, the thing that kept me going is that {Cal Ripken Sr.} told me I'd get an opportunity. He said that when I got it that I ought to be ready."

He got it after two weeks, when the pitching went bad and Shelby didn't hit. He has played ever since, and now in right field, his defense has been above average. Playing against left-handers has been the final frontier.

"I'm happy when I come to the park and know I'm going to play," he said. "You become known as a good player by hitting with power and for average. That's what I want to do. You're not a complete player until you play against all pitching, and that's my goal. That's where I'm at right now."

He said the adjustment to facing left-handers is a constant battle, adding, "I see mostly sliders, and the ball breaks away from me instead of in. That's a big difference. I do feel I've made a lot of strides, and the more I play, hopefully, the more comfortable I'll get."

Yet as he has developed into a complete player, his past has haunted him. He remembers two years ago when he hit a game-winning homer off Milwaukee's Rollie Fingers, and a reporter's first question was, "Why did you quit the game twice?"

Frustrated, he once asked a friend, "Am I ever going to escape this retirement thing?"

It bothers him in other ways. He said he especially remembers Dick Bowie, the respected Orioles scout who died before Sheets made the big leagues. It was Bowie who kept trying to convince Sheets to return to the big leagues and it was Bowie who befriended Sheets when almost no one else in the organization would.

"A day doesn't go by that I don't think of that man," Sheets said. "He showed a lot of faith in me."

Sheets got a degree in physical education from Eastern Mennonite last winter, and he and Sharon have settled into a large home in the Baltimore suburb of Cockeysville. He spends his winters working for several charities, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. A year ago, Sharon gave birth to a daughter.

"I've got a good life, and I'm happy with it," he said. "What happened in the past is the past, but it's still part of me. I have to deal with it. Different people go through different experiences, and I went through a few. I think I'm over that hump now."