With the Orioles a game out of first place and riding a streak of 18 straight home sellouts at Camden Yards, the next best thing to being there in the sweetest little ballyard in America is watching the telecasts of their home games on HTS. It's pure pleasure listening to Mel Proctor, John Lowenstein and occasionally Jim Palmer when they're talkin' baseball.

Yes, Washington, the Orioles are the home side these days and most likely will be forever more. It would be hard to imagine a team having a better group of broadcasters on the radio or TV to call the action.

From patriarch Chuck Thompson sharing the radio mike with brilliant Jon Miller (arguably the best in the game) and with class acts like Joe Angel and Brooks Robinson around for analysis and short relief on radio and television, there are definitely days and nights when it's far better to tune in at home than to brave the traffic or the scalpers' prices.

The HTS trio is probably the team's most underrated broadcasting act, if only because Thompson and Miller (who also does local television and ESPN national games) are revered local icons and so many area viewers still are not wired for cable or satellite transmission. And yet, the HTS universe is now 2.4 million subscribers in an area stretching from Delaware to North Carolina. And the Bethesda-based company has spared little expense in its production of 90 Orioles games from spring training to the stretch drive in September.

Last week, HTS was awarded a local Emmy for its Orioles telecasts. These meticulously produced broadcasts offer unique camera angles and constant updates and highlights of games around the league. And at least one announcer -- the eminently quotable and always mischievious Lowenstein -- has become a veritable cult figure among Orioles aficionados.

"Having John up there has made all the difference," Proctor said of his partner, a 16-year major league veteran who played his last seven seasons with the Orioles. Lowenstein joined HTS as a temporary fill-in for an ill Rex Barney in 1985 and was so good, they gave him a contract and he's kept the job.

Proctor insists he never has any idea what Lowenstein might say at any moment, whom he might make fun of, and whom he may even offend. There have been times when Lowenstein clearly has gone way beyond the bounds of political correctness -- not to mention good taste -- but Proctor and Lowenstein both say they've never been told to temper their remarks or clean up their mostly entertaining act.

Proctor says the pairing clicked immediately and there's hardly been a dull moment since. At the start of the 18th game of the Birds' record 21-game losing streak in 1988, for example, Proctor and Lowenstein convinced the technical people to blank out the announcers' heads for their pre-game opening, a move that made highlight shows at 6 and 11 around the country for days after.

A few years ago, in the late innings of a lopsided loss against the Oakland A's on "seat cushion night" at Memorial Stadium, Lowenstein picked up his own cushion and sailed it onto the field. Hundreds more followed from the stands and play had to be halted to pick them all up.

"A couple of years ago, we'd show shots of people in the stands," Proctor recalled. "They panned in on a guy who had to weigh 350. He was draped over two chairs and there was a mound of peanuts under his seat. John said 'There are enough peanuts down there to feed a nation of homeless people.' Turns out this guy's friend was watching and told him about it. The guy called us and threatened to sue and we had to apologize."

This year, with the team winning, Proctor said, "It's been pretty tame. John has always relied on his shtick and now he's also putting more into his preparation."

Still Lowenstein, who says he prefers to be known as "an athletic interpretation mechanic" rather than an analyst, also says that almost everything he does on the air is spontaneous. That would include a recent description of umpires as "dispassionate robots monitoring and arbitrating a game of human endeavor."

"I think most people want a little fluff with their baseball. They've seen the news at 6 and 7, the killings, the corruption, all the bad stuff, now they want to see a game and have some fun."