Steve Culkar, 25, a minor league pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, has succeeded in a workers' compensation claim against the club because of a shoulder injury that was judged to have been caused by the physical demands of pitching.

The decision, made Monday by Maryland Workers' Compensation Commissioner Sidney W. Albert, is believed to be the first time a professional athlete in Maryland has been awarded compensation for wages lost as a result of an injury caused by the normal performance of his job. Officials from the Major League Baseball commissioner's office and the Major League Baseball Players Association said yesterday they were interested in examining the case.

The Orioles drafted Culkar in 1987. A right-handed reliever, he spent part of the 1989 season with Class AA Hagerstown and part with Class AAA Rochester. His right shoulder began hurting during last year's spring training, according to a memorandum filed with the commission by his attorney, Gerald Herz. The Orioles assigned Culkar to Hagerstown, where he pitched in two games, after which his shoulder hurt. He was found to have torn cartilage. After a rehabilitation program failed to stop the pain, he had surgery on June 26.

He again began rehabilitation and was paid his regular salary of $388.57 a week for the season. But the last of those payments was made at the end of the season, Sept. 2. Normally, Herz said, Culkar would supplement his income from the Orioles with an offseason job. But Herz said that because Culkar was advised by the Orioles medical staff to continue rehabilitation and not to do anything that would affect his shoulder, Culkar could not work during this offseason.

Albert awarded Culkar compensation for the offseason wages he lost. "It is unique that baseball pitchers suffer from this condition," Albert said yesterday.

In short, Albert ruled that the shoulder and arm manipulations professional baseball pitchers must perform cause what is classified as an occupational disease. That places Culkar's injury in the same classification as carpal tunnel syndrome -- the condition that can be caused by the wrist, hand and finger movements computer operators must perform.

Culkar is to receive the standard two-thirds of his average weekly wage, retroactive to Sept. 3. The Orioles also will have to pay his medical expenses. His wage compensation will continue to be $260 per week. If he returns to the team either as an active player or on the disabled list, he will resume receiving his full salary.

The ruling will be appealed to a Maryland Circuit Court, said S. Woods Bennett, the attorney representing the Orioles and their insurer, USF&G. Under Maryland law, Culkar will receive his salary compensation and medical expenses regardless of the appeal's outcome, Bennett said. But Bennett added his clients disagreed with Albert's ruling and are concerned about possibly having to pay permanent disability benefits and/or additional medical costs if Culkar ends up permanently disabled.

Herz said Culkar is hoping to play again this season. He's on the Hagerstown roster.

Previously, the relationship between Maryland workers' compensation law and professional athletes in the state generally was determined by a 1983 case involving a Baltimore Colts defensive lineman. In that case, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that an injury resulting from legitimate and usual contact with other players while participating in pro football does not qualify a player for benefits.

The ruling in the 1983 case made it difficult for professional athletes in Maryland to succeed in workers' compensation claims.

Although the decision involving Culkar has limited value as a precedent, it could help other athletes who sustain injuries because of the unique bodily stresses of their particular positions.

"A decision which awards workman's compensation based on the classification of {Culkar's shoulder injury} as a disease as opposed to an injury is something that we will look into immediately," said Gene Orza, the players association's associate general counsel.