BALTIMORE -- In almost every clubhouse, free agency is baseball's festering sore. Never completely healed, always ready to become inflamed, the issue lies just below the surface, waiting to cause problems.

The agony of misunderstanding and ill will, which the whole sport endures every four years when its labor contract comes due, besets individual players and clubs every season.

For example, you'd think Phil Bradley of the Baltimore Orioles would be the game's happiest camper. In the last week, no player has approached his Hollywood heroics. In the span of four days, he was The hero in three dramatic late-inning victories. After driving in 11 runs in the Orioles' first 82 games, he drove in nine in less than 82 hours. To add flare, those were also his first games back after wrist surgery -- an operation that would have sidelined most players twice as long. Instead, Bradley, who is eligible for free agency after this season, was more interested tonight in talking about the contract the Orioles have not offered him than the ovations Memorial Stadium has showered on him.

"They have yet to show me any reason to think I'll be here next year," said Bradley, who was one of the union's key negotiators during the 1990 lockout and whose father is a college professor.

"Jose Canseco got five years when he had a back problem; but they didn't want to talk to me because I had a minor wrist problem," said Bradley, who is the Orioles' second-highest paid player at $1.15 million. "In the first half, every time we brought up the contract, they said they weren't ready . . . {Now} it's probably in my best interest to see who else is interested {after the season}. It's certainly not in my interest to make them an offer."

Modern ballplayers are steeped in distrust of management -- often before they reach the majors. Bradley's father once coached Al Bumbry at Virginia State. In 1978, when Bradley was quarterbacking Missouri to three straight bowl games, Bumbry was in his option year with the Orioles and coming off a .317 season.

"The Orioles didn't offer him a contract before the season," said Bradley, knowing Bumbry had proven he was a perennial .290-to-.300 hitter. "Bumbry broke his ankle in May and missed the rest of the season. It hurt Bumbry. It cost him a whole lot of money."

After that .237 season in 114 at bats, Bumbry signed for a fraction of his value a year earlier. "The Bee" came back with big years for the Orioles in 1979 and 1980. But by the time he was due to negotiate again, he was showing his age. He never had leverage, never had the good year in his option season. So, "the Bee" never had his big payday.

After Bumbry retired, the Red Sox offered him a coaching job for $15,000 a year. The Orioles offered him nothing.

Those are the stories that harden ballplayers and make them read the worst into every management stance. "I talked to Bumbry last month," said Bradley.

Coincidentally, at almost exactly the same time, Bradley decided to stop playing in pain, stop bleeding for the team, so to speak, and have surgery to help himself. "That's why I got my hand fixed," he said. "So I wouldn't waste the whole year {like Bumbry}. I wanted to show I could still drive the ball, then they'd go on my {whole} seven years, not just one year."

Had surgery not gone so smoothly, he might have been out months. Instead, because of a good doctor and Bradley's hard work, he raced back so soon that the team was caught by surprise and didn't activate him.

That burned his britches, too. "I guess I got the false idea they'd be happy to have me back as quickly as I could get back," he snapped a week ago. "They can't justify why it takes so long . . . It's getting to the point where you don't know what's happening."

What makes his situation so typical of contemporary baseball is that it illustrates, in pure fashion, how both sides can act reasonably and in good faith, yet find themselves faced with a potential bad-blood situation. One reason Whitey Herzog quit managing is that the Cardinals had made no progress toward signing 10 players in their option years. The Orioles also have not signed '89 all-star catcher Mickey Tettleton.

The longer the waiting game lasts, the more tempers fray. That's why Don Mattingly signed early this year; he set a deadline and George Steinbrenner believed The Don wasn't bluffing. Jose Canseco may have gone into the hospital for his aching back to help the A's understand that, if they weren't going to sign him, perhaps he should take better care of his health. Darryl Strawberry is in a major huff with the Mets because that symbolic midpoint of the season has passed and the Mets have not proved the depth of their love.

"The last time Mr. Ripken was up for a contract, did he sign it in the middle of his last year?" asked Bradley, knowing that Cal Ripken Jr. signed before his option year.

As for the Orioles, they have nothing but nice things to say about Bradley. But they also haven't made him an offer yet -- let alone the kind of $4.5-million for three-year deal that might get them in the right salary ballpark.

"Bradley playing the first half of this season with torn cartilage in his wrist was a daily act of courage," said Orioles President Larry Lucchino Tuesday night. "Every time I saw him after a game in the clubhouse, his wrist was wrapped like he'd been in combat. . . .

"He's a proven major league player. He made a great contribution last year and it seems like he's been here a long time. He leads by performance," said Lucchino, adding that Bradley's contract situation had been "somewhat clouded by injuries."

Now, the clouds seem to have lifted. But the Orioles, who were probably justified in waiting before offering a multimillion dollar deal to a 31-year-old, now find themselves faced with an increasingly truculent player.

As Jim Bouton wrote 20 years ago in "Ball Four," whenever a player says, "Baseball is a business," the club says, "No, it's a game." And vise versa.

As always, free agent problems go to the very heart of a team. Any player with six years' service who commands free agent bids is, de facto, a core player. The longer such situations last, the worse they grow. As Orioles catcher Bob Melvin listened to Bradley give one aggravated quote after another, Melvin tried to shift his friend away from deep waters. "Why don't you let me answer these?" Melvin said at one point.

If the Orioles don't make Bradley feel appreciated soon, he won't stay.

If Bradley doesn't stop grousing while earning over a million dollars a year, the Orioles may not want him.

And that's just how it is for dozens of players on many teams every year.