This is the country for old pitchers.

The silken tradewinds bathe this island in an air that Christopher Columbus called "very soft as of April in Seville." To Mike Cuellar, these lush, humid breezes are more medicinal than linament for reviving his aging soupspoon.

This is the last chance for Cuellar. He was released outright last month by the Baltimore Orioles, the team he won 125 games for in six seasons from 1969 to 1974.

By calling in an old account, Cuellar signed a contract with the California Angels this week. But it is a slender thread that Cuellar's major league career hangs by, one that could break before the season ever starts.

So Cuellar has come home to pitch winter ball for the Caguas Crillos and try to turn back the clock on this island that was settled by Ponce de Leon. The Cuellar one meets here - calmly pitching his team into the island championship series with a 7-3 record and a 2.97 ERA - is an entirely different man from the reclusive, enigmatic lefthander than other ball players in the States call "Crazy Horse."

Like many a Latin player, Cuellar can only be himself in this Caribbean setting. What North Americans see seven months of the year is the defensive shell, the almost religious ritual of self-protection of a man who has been exiled by his profession.

The Cuellar of the major leagues is a clubhouse legend - the epitome of the unfathomable Latin ballplayer.

When he pitches or must fly in an airplane, Cuellar wears his lucky blue clothes and special medallions.

He will not sign his name on the day he pitches. He must eat his pregame meal with his catcher.

During games, he smokes nine cigarettes, one every inning, and always while sitting in the same seat.

To start each inning, he must pick the ball up dead out of the grass, even if he must dodge to teammate's toss and wait for the ball to stop rolling. After outs, he will only accept the ball from his shortstop.

And, of course, his sequence of twitches and hitches before each pitch is unvarying. If the hitter steps out, Cuellar recycles all his gestures.

It is a beautiful paradox that out of this orderly priestly rite come perhaps the most confusing and unpredictable concoction of pitches in baseball.

"His fastball couldn't black my eye," manager Billy Martin once fumed "but he owns my hitters' minds."

Obiously, Cuellar's four 20-win seasons and his Cy Young Award (1969) can be attributed not to a feeble, superstitious mind but to a very observant and crafty one.

Nevertheless, to North Americans Cuellar has been a closed book, as have so many great Latin players from Roberto Clemente to Juan Marichal.

"He has a phobia about sportswriters," says Cuellar's best friend and catcher for eight years, Elrod Hendricks. "They either ignore him for months or quote him in pigeon English. It drives him crazy.

Yet it is not just the press that Cuellar can tune out like a man switching off a hearing aid. It is the entire Yankee world that he often ignores.

"Mike often goes into seclusion," says Hendricks, who is from the Virgin Islands. "He is a hard person to talk to about personal things. I know he hasn't seen his parents since he left Cuba, but we roomed together eight years and he never said Castro's name once.

"He likes to take himself away from the rest of the world. He goes to every movie. He'll only confide the smallest things to a chosen few when he's in the States."

But here in Puerto Rico, his adopted home, all that changes.

"Sure, we can talk now," says Cuellar to a U.S. sportswriter a half-hour before he is scheduled to pitch. It doesn't matter."

On his own turf, Cuellar signs autographs on game day, wears brown clothes to the ball park and will catch anything anyone throws to him. His gestures on the mound stay the same, but he laughs, "It's just part of me now. I never think of it."

In Baltimore, Cuellar seemed invisible, sitting in the trainer's room or the whirpool, staying out of the team's needling and card games. ut in the Caguas locker room, Cuellar is a bit the father, a bit the jester and a hero to boot. "He's one super person," grins 23-year-old Sixto Lezcano. "He help all us kids."

"I like to work with the young pitchers, the way Ruben Gomez (now 50 and still pitching here) helps me. That is," says Cuellar, if they will pay attention.

"Some of them already think they know everything," he says, a pained comic expressions creasing his leathery face. "That's funny. I don't know anything yet after all these years. I have to learn every day."

Hendricks claims that he has caught only two pitchers who "remembered darn near every pitch they'd thrown in 10 years - Jim Palmer and Cuellar."

Palmer's book on hitters is an example of severe Anglo-Saxon logic - fast ball on the fists, curve low and away. Cuellars's book borders on pagan illogic and intuition.

"I know what the hitters are thinking about," says Cuellar, a sentence that would give Ted Williams nightmares. "I try to make the mind confusing."

Take, for instance, Al Kaline, he of the 3,000 hits.

"Fast-ball hitter," says Cuellar. "Every pitcher knows no fast ball can get pass him." So what does Cuellar throw him?

"Fast balls," said Cuellar, an impish expression playing around his moustache. "He wouldn't expect it because I'm not a power pitcher.Yes, I was always lucky with him with fast ball."

Ah yes. luck. Cuellar claims it is one of the two absolute essentials of pitching. The other is that, "The first pitch, whatever it is, must be a strike."

"Mike always thinks two pitches ahead," says Hendricks. "When they make an out on the one of his 'set-up' pitches, he looks like they've spoiled his fun."

Many a hitter has given up thinking along with Cuellar. "One day I yelled at Mike. "Throw me that crummy fast ball of yours," said slugger Willie Montanez, a winter-league veteran. "So he gets two strike on me, then throws a 50-mile-an-hour fast ball right by me.

"Next time up, he threw me three straight fast balls and every time I figured it would be something else. I never even got a swing. I headed back to the dugout and Mike yelled. 'Hey. I thought you wanted to see my crummy fast ball."

"Since then,"says Montanez, "I just guess a bit and hope I hit blackjack."

Last year, however, the house odds in the American League began catching up with Cuellar. After he had won 175 games in the previous 10 years suddenly even the Punch-and-Judy's started turning up with blackjack.

Many a pitcher loses his stuff overnight and can't win but Cuellar turned bad so quick he couldn't even get through the first inning.

Thirteen times in a row - a symbolic number not lost on Cuellar - the slender 5-foot-11 magician was knocked out before going four innings.

"He was humiliated and confused," says Hendricks. "It got so he pitched looking at the bullpen.

"Like most black ball players he was always on defense in the States searching for someone he could trust and it had always been (manager Earl) Weaver. But you know how our love turns to hate. Mike got convinced that Earl hated him.

"One day he cursed Earl out on the mound when we pulled him in the first."

The bond between the two men was permanently broken. Weaver, perhaps the only man in baseball with more lucky hats, socks and old pieces of string than Cuellar, snapped back. "I've given Mike Cuellar more chances than I gave my first wife."

The whole nightmarish two months before Cuellar was finally removed forever from the Oriole rotation after more than 250 consecutive starts seemed so improbable. The lefty, for the first time since 1968, was not pitching with a sore shoulder.

Instead of losing his fastballs with age, Cuellar suddenly regained some of his velocity. "Being healthy was actually what undid him," says Hendricks, shaking his head. "A good thing became bad."

Cuellar felt so strong that when he ("dropping down"), he felt he was coming over the top. The result was one high, fat curve ball after another.

By the end of '76, Cuellar actually hoped for a quick release from the Orioles. "I'm going to call Harry Dalton (California general manager), then Frank (Robinson, Cleveland manager)," Cuellar told friends. "If they both fail me, I don't know what I'll do."

But Dalton, the Orioles' GM in Cuellar's best years did not forget the debt he owed.

These days, Cuellar looks for good beats the likes of Bayamon and Sanomens and usually finds them as he turces. His control of his curve ball his single biggest problem is solved. His arm is healthy. He considers his winter-ball statistics remarkable because, "I stopped playing down here years ago because the Latins hit me so well. They're all off-speed hitters."

Cuellar lives on the star-washed beach here with his wife, Myriam and his son, Mike Jr.

Cuellar, one emblem of this island talks about Southern California, its warm pitchers' weather the abundance of Spanish architecture and Latin people.

"Anaheim," the exile said, "is a lot like Puerto Rico."