Once upon a time there were heroes in the land. You coull count on them to perform majestically, and they never - well, hardly ever, as W. S. Gilbert would say - let you down.

There was Lou Gehrig, still handsome and self-effacing but dying by inches and knowing it, facing that huge crowd at Yankees Stadium, discarding his prepared text and, brushing aside his tears, saying, "I may have been given a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for. With all this, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

A few years later, after Gehrig had died, there was Babe Ruth standing in the same place taking his last farewell before the multitudes and saying, in rasping, labored tones, "You all know how bad this voice of mine sounds, well it feels just as bad," and then going on to talk, movingly, about what sports means to America's youth.

And there, through all the years, was the flawless grace of Joe DiMaggio, always unruffled, playing hurt but never complaining, bone spur, serious operations searing pain notwithstanding.

"Don't take the applause too seriously, Joe." Ed Barrow, the Yankees' general manager told him in his golden first year when the eyes of the nation focused on him, "and don't become overanxious in your efforts to hold to the pace you have struck."

DiMaggio, impassive as ever, replied: "Don't worry about me, Mr. Barrow.I never get excited." And the Clipper, as they called him, kept swinging along.

In those halcyon, and childish, days we used to keep scrapbooks about the doings of our demi-gods, and trade baseball cards, and flip them against a wall in contests of skill, winner take all, and experience exquisite agony over loss or failure and rapture over victory and mighty deeds.

If you rooted for the Yankees, of course, victory and great performance were the rule rather than the exception. But those who sneered at Yankee fans as being the big league sports equivalent of a colorless and impersonally corporate GM missed the point. It was the character of the team and the players that mattered: that, in the end, was more important than scores and standings. You knew they would do their best, and their best happened to be superb.

Not that the other teams were without interest. To grow up in New York at that time was to be at the center of the most intense sports rivalries. If you were fortunate enough to work as a "copyboy" (only one sexual identification was permitted in that witlessly macho period: women had to jump at the calls for "Boy!" as they carried the copy from reporter's desk to editor's) in the sports department of a major New York newspaper, heady advantages went with the job. I had season passes to the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium, and one high school year managed to take in more than 150 games played by the Giants, Dodgers and Yankees. The envy of the neighborhood, naturally.

But it was the Yankees who really counted.

Later DiMaggio tried to put into words what special qualities went into those great Yankee teams. In so doing, he expressed what many of us already instinctively knew.

"What nobody outside our tight-knit circle could know, however," he said, "was that we hit so hard because we were happy about playing ball together. Everybody was interested in the welfare of everybody else. And ball players do their best under those conditions. A player doesn't hit or play too well unless he's happy."

And, then his main point:

"There were no big shots on the Yankees. We had some great ballplayers, yes - but no big shots in the disparaging sense of the term."

Ah, yes, the good old days.

It should be admitted that baseball has been a bore for years. All of professional sports, in fact, increasingly seems so. The crassness of the commercialization, the outlandish salaries, the press agentry, the rampant crybabyism, the offensiveness of the TV commentators whose only rule, it appears, is to "hype" the product, the arrogance of so many owners, the special deals that rob the public to benefit the franchises (the Yankee Stadium $100 million renovation paid for by the city has got to be one of the greatest all-time ripoffs in a city where historic ripoff all legend) - well, you get my point.

Still, I confess to remaining a secret fan - watching the bozscores, checking the standings, studying the batting and pitching averages and all the rest. A lifetime of habit dies hard, I suppose. Two years ago the old loyalties came creeping back as the Yankees finally climbed out of so many years of shadows to win the pennant. Their subsequent crushing defeat at the hands of the Reds was most un-Yankeelike, but, then all good things take time, including comebacks.

It was hard, I'll confess, to root for them last year what with all the internal carping and bickering and power playing and tantrum tripping and plain old ugly jealousies. But when October rolled around the tribal chords rang again. Oh, yes, was glory renewed when Reggie Jackson outdid the Babe and Lou and Joe by hitting all those home runs to put the Yankees back on top in the World Series.

Back enough is enough. All good things do come to an end, after all.

Here, sports fan, is one old Yankee rooter who's finally had it. As far as I'm concerned, Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Sparky Lyle, Thurman Munson and all the rest ought to follow Billy Martin into well deserved limbo.

Break up the Yankees, their enemies used to wail. Break them up? Who'd want them? Why, I'm not only switching my lifetime allegiance. I'm now going all the way with the once-hated Red Sox. At least they have an attractive human quality.

As for the fans, now they're all cheering for Pete Rose, and I am too. I hope he keeps hitting in consective games - right on through No. 55. That will put him just one game behind Joe DiMaggio.

But, Pete, have a heart. Let it lie there. Some of us would still like to cling to some of our old illusions, like those days when the Yankees were the Yankees and there were giants in the land.