It's time for the Orioles to conduct their annual midsummer auction of veteran talent. That's how they got rid of Mike Flanagan in the first place. They'd be crazy -- and heartless -- to do it again. Flanagan, 39, already is drawing serious interest in talks with the New York Mets, but manager John Oates indicated last night that he would not endorse a trade unless the club received an overwhelming offer.

That's good news for Flanagan, who not only wants to finish his career in Baltimore, but to pitch in the final game at Memorial Stadium, where he competed in the World Series in 1979 and '83.

"I had a vision of pitching at some point in the last game -- in the last inning or just in the game," Flanagan said. "It would be a Cinderella ending to this ballpark for me.

"I'd be disappointed to be traded. I've always had an emotional investment in the Orioles, even when I went to Toronto [in a 1987 deal for pitchers Jose Mesa and Oswald Peraza]. I was still an Oriole, but in a blue uniform.

"I can understand if a trade does happen," added Flanagan, a 15-year veteran. "But it's the type of thing where I don't want to be penalized for doing a good job here, and just become trade bait."

His fear is legitimate: Flanagan is pitching so well, he'd be the perfect addition for a club seeking relief help. The Mets, in particular, need a lefthanded setup man for John Franco as they chase Pittsburgh in the NL East.

Right now, a trade doesn't appear imminent, but things could change. The Mets no doubt are trying to lowball the Orioles, but Wednesday is the deadline for completing trades without exposing players to waivers.

The sudden demand is quite a turnaround for Flanagan, whose 1990 season ended on May 4 when arm trouble led to his release by Toronto. He rejoined the Orioles on a tryout basis this spring, and signed his $250,000 contract only after making the team.

Since then he has merely been the club's most consistent pitcher while working almost exclusively in relief for the first time in his career. Last night was a microcosm of his season: He entered with a one-run lead, then worked 1 1/3 shutout innings as the Orioles beat California 8-4.

Rightfielder Dwight Evans, 39, hit a pinch-hit RBI double to help break the game open, but ironically his situation appears just the opposite of Flanagan's: He probably would welcome a trade to a contender, but the interest thus far has been minimal.

Evans is batting .268 overall and .385 with men in scoring position, but he spent nearly a month on the disabled list and hasn't played much of late because of rookie Chito Martinez. Flanagan, on the other hand,has been an integral part of the club all season.

He lost his only start by allowing five runs in four innings, but as a reliever he's 1-2 with a 1.68 ERA. He has issued only one walk in his last 2 2/3 innings. He has an 0.69 ERA in his last 15 games. Lefthanded hitters are batting .183.

"I don't think there's any team in baseball that will give us what Mike Flanagan is worth to us," Oates said. "If anyone is interested, make me an offer. I don't have a say, but I'll give my input if asked. Mike Flanagan is a very important part of our ballclub."

Forget that he turns 40 in December; Flanagan might be capable of pitching several more years, an important consideration for a club with the league's second-worst ERA. Asked how long Flanagan can last, Oates said, "The way he's throwing now, forever."

Catcher Bob Melvin said Flanagan threw only sinkers and curveballs in spring training, then incorporated a surprisingly live fastball and devastating changeup. The fastball might not travel 90 mph, but Melvin said Flanagan spots it so well "it sure as hell looks like it."

Flanagan agrees his fastball is "better than I've had in years." To think, he has pitched 65 relief innings, second in the AL to Toronto's Duane Ward (65 2/3 ). Sunday he worked the final 4 2/3 innings in a 6-4 loss to Seattle, and Oates said he agreed to pitch the 10th if the Orioles tied the score.

"All I can is that it's been the easiest year on my arm in a decade," he said. "My arm has never felt this good this late in a season. I don't know what the normal workload is in the bullpen, but I don't feel overused. It's not a workload I can't handle.

"I'm proud of the job I'm doing. I'm proud they can bring me into a 4-3 ballgame, use me back-to-back nights. I do a lot of things for the bullpen -- holding runners on, keeping them from stealing. The biggest satisfaction I get is to keep [Gregg] Olson out of the eighth inning."

How can the Orioles trade this guy? They drafted Flanagan in the seventh round in 1973. He won the Cy Young Award in '79, and his 81-42 (.659) record at Memorial Stadium is the second-best in club history behind Dick Hall's (38-18, .679).

He belongs here. He deserves to stay here. "My best years were spent on this field," Flanagan said. "When I walk on this field all the good memories come back. It's a special place for me."

The Mets want him. Others might too.

If the Orioles have any brains, and any heart, they'll just say no.