The day Jim Walewander got called up to the major leagues, he decided he'd better do something about his wardrobe. After all, when he showed up at spring training in khaki shorts and his black Sears Wearmaster Wellington boots, the Tigers were hardly enthusiastic. "It was like, 'fix my car,' " he says.

So he went to his favorite thrift store and plunked down 50 bucks for a couple of shirts, some pants and a beautiful maroon jacket with narrow lapels. "Cool clothes," he says. "The only problem is my chest is 42 and my arms are short, so I had to push up the sleeves, and the guy who had the coat before had dandruff and I can't get it out of the material. The first road trip, {Dave} Bergman looked at me and said, 'What size do you wear?' "

Bergman, the first baseman, who graduated from the same high school, Maine South in Park Ridge, Ill., bought Walewander three suits. He wore them with the tailor's stitching still in.

In baseball, conformity is the norm. And the norms are so prevalent that there is a generic word for anyone just a little bit different: flake. There are guys who belly-flop on wet tarps during rain delays and guys who put Ben-Gay in jock straps and guys who wear their uniforms upside down. There are guys like Tug McGraw and Bill (Spaceman) Lee and Jay Johnstone and Jimmy Piersall, whose weirdness lingered long after their careers came to an end.

And then there is Walewander, the sometime second baseman who reads Kinky Friedman novels, quotes liberally from the Dead Milkmen's ode to Elvis, "Going toGraceland" ("When my time comes that's how I want to go, stoned and fat and wealthy and sitting on the bowl"), and at 158 pounds doesn't look like a ballplayer, much less a flake.

It's a rainy day in Baltimore, and he's doing what all ballplayers do on rainy days in Baltimore -- practicing the fine art of lobby sitting. The room bustles with the traffic of transients, guys with rat tails and earrings, guys with imposing physiques, guys with attitude, none of whom prove to be the much heralded Walewander, who sits in a corner looking quite presentable (if uncomfortable in 85-degree weather) in woolen slacks and a brown plaid shirt. "Well, actually, everything, the shirt, the pants, they're my dad's," he says. "The socks were a present."

He looks like Huck Finn in argyles. For awhile he gave up using shampoo -- Ivory soap made his hair spikier. Now his reddish bangs fall over his eyes. He also has freckles.

"People look at me and expect to see a clown," he says. "I'm no clown."

Or, as Bergman puts it: "There are flakes from the outside in and flakes from the inside out."

Usually it takes years for quirks to ripen into reputation and for reputation to ripen into legend. Walewander, who has batted .208 in 48 major league at bats and says he is flabbergasted to find himself with the Tigers in the middle of the pennant race, has made his mark in a hurry. He is as improbable as his career, which is, to say the least, marginal.

Item: When he was brought up to the Tigers in May, a reporter asked him the difference between the majors and the minors. "Fewer bugs in my apartment," he said.

Item: On July 5 he got a start against Mark Langston of the Seattle Mariners. "I went two for four and had two RBIs," he says. "The reporters asked, 'How did you find Langston?' I said, 'I walked into the batter's box, looked at the pitcher's mound and he was standing there.' "

Item: When he returned from a Dead Milkmen concert with an autographed poster that said "Satan Lives" and "Satan Is My Master," some of the religious types on the team bristled. "They told me I didn't know who I was messing with," Walewander says. "I told them, 'If you don't believe in God, you don't believe in Satan.' "

Item: On July 26 he hit his first major league home run into the upper deck at Tiger Stadium, which former Detroit slugger Al Kaline said proved the balls are juiced up. Walewander keeps the ball in the glove compartment of his new car. He can't remember the count -- sacrilege! -- or the pitcher. "It was a righthander," he says. "A white guy. I hit it off a white righthander."

Item: A reporter inquires about his childhood heroes. "Ayn Rand and Thoreau," he says immediately. "They had a kid and it was me."

No wonder people started paying attention.

"After the first article, I talked to my dad," Walewander says. "He said, 'Jim, you got misquoted.' I said, 'What do you mean, Dad? What did I say?' He read it to me. And I said, 'No, Dad, I said it.' "

Another time, a reporter called his father, who once played minor league ball under the name Windy Wonders (he was from Chicago), and asked, "Do you mind people calling your son a flake?" "He said, 'What's a flake?' " Walewander says. "I said, 'Gee, Dad, it's me.' " Says Bergman: "If the game was made up of people just like me, it would be pretty boring."

"He's everybody's flake," says Bill Madlock, the veteran third baseman, who knows one when he sees one. "No furniture. Carries the first home run ball around in his glove compartment. I asked him one time, 'If you have a date and she happens to stay over, are you both going to jump in the sleeping bag?' He said, 'It hasn't happened yet.' "

There was a time when he tried to play the jock. This was at Iowa State, where he wrote short stories, was All-Academic and hit .380 as a freshman. "I was God," he says. The next year he hit .260. "I tried to be the fun guy, the regular jock, the towel slapper, but it wasn't me," he says. "I just decided to play hard and be myself."

It was your basic round peg in a very square hole situation. He decided, "If the other guys think you're weird, so what?"

Sometimes he thinks they're a little weird, too. He told a friend once, " 'I'm a baseball player who doesn't like baseball players.' They go out and hound the beef. It's like, do something else! That's in the minor leagues, where most of the guys are single and there's nothing else to do ... My main goal of the day isn't to go out and get laid. Maybe every other day. I need a rest in between ...

"You're supposed to chew tobacco -- it's just disgusting -- and you've got to be tall and dark-haired, and go out all night and be able to play all day and be real obnoxious to autograph fans. If you can show up those little kids asking for autographs, then you're a man. Granted, they are a lot like gnats."

He isn't trying to be different from everyone else -- he just is. Except, of course, in his love for the game.

Sparky Anderson, the manager of the Tigers, who is not known for his dedication to the unconventional, or for taking rookies shopping (he bought Walewander an Alexander Julian jacket), says, "I look forward to seeing him every day. I've been in this business 18 years and I've seen a lot of stars. Everybody don't live like that. Some people got to struggle, and you like to be around them.

"He doesn't have much ability, but he loves to play. He's got that look that everybody wants to have. He's what the game is all about. It starts with dreams. You look at Jim and you see a kid who has that in his face."

Walewander shrugs. "He doesn't understand anything I say and I don't understand anything he says so we get along just fine."

The highlights of his minor league career include: rooming with a pitcher who used to be a Cuban boat person, using aluminum foil for drapes and surviving a burglary in which everything but his stuff was taken. "Too trashy," he says.

Last year he played Double A ball in Glens Falls, N.Y., and lived with two other players at the home of Rose Donovan. "She did all our laundry," he says. "I never had so many clean clothes in my life. She actually picked them up off the floor. I felt bad about that. She's an old lady. I didn't mind her washing them, but I didn't want her picking them up."

He says he has named Rose as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, though she doesn't know about it yet. "I figured it would be a surprise if I die," he says.

This year he was the last player chosen for the Tigers' Triple A team in Toledo. He made it as a utility infielder. He didn't expect to play much but the manager liked his speed, which aside from his sense of the absurd is his one incontrovertible asset. He never bothered to buy a bed. "You live like a cowboy," he says. "You sleep in your clothes, put your beans on the stove and eat 'em out of a can."

He was leading the league in stolen bases when they played an exhibition game against the Tigers. "Sparky liked the way I could run," he says.

He was called up on May 30. "My first day in the majors," he says. "It got rained out." He was sent back to the minors on Aug. 14. He had already formed some impressions about idiosyncrasy and why there is so little of it in sports. "They're afraid to lose their jobs," he says. "I wasn't afraid. I figured I'd be sent down. When you go 27 days without an at-bat, you're not going to buy an apartment. I'd go to the locker room every day and check to see if my uniform was still there and finally one day it wasn't."

He was recalled on Sept. 2, just in time for the pennant race but too late to qualify for postseason play. Reporters asked what he did while he was gone. "I was in the movies," he said. "I was an extra in 'Complex World.' My part was to order a Becks at a bar."

So here he is, in the middle of a pennant race, getting paid to eat ("they're always feeding me") and doing what he always wanted to, albeit not very much of it. "I told myself, 'If I can't have fun doing what I dreamed of doing since I picked up a baseball, then there's something wrong with me,' and I was hoping there was nothing wrong with me. I found out I'm completely sane.