The Boston Red Sox know that fame is written on water. They learned it last season.

"They were the heroes of the world," exaggerated a Boston official, looking down like a sad, rueful father at his team, "It was a long, hard way to fall."

The Red Sox, who seemed so triumphant in their World Series defeat just 17 months ago, were blessed children - either in age, like Fred Lynn, or at heart, like Carl Yastrzemski.

They played with an almost magical bouyancy, like babes who luckily did not understand what they were doing.

Those Red Sox are no longer innocents. The 1976 season covered them with scar tissue. If the miracle Bosox fed on the audacity of youth, then this rededicated Boston team carries itself with a steely, almost bitter maturity.

Those 1975 Red Sox had one long winter, as pitcher Dick Drago said, to "go to the South Seas with a bottle of rum." But from the instant they lost the first two games of the next season, they seemed to have bitten some awful apples of self doubt.

Spring rain washed out eight games in nine days and the rusty Red Sox lost 10 in a row when the deluge stopped. Matters only got worse. The Fenway Park fans booed - especially taunting the holdout trio of Lynn, Rick Burleson and Carlton Fisk. The old, beloved, almost childlike owner, Tom Yawkey, died. By July 19, stiff-necked manager Darrell Johnson had been fired. The collapse, the reversal of mood, was complete.

"I took over a completely demoralized team," said Boston manager Don Zimmer. "And I knew what was wrong would take more than a day or two to straighten out."

In many ways, Zimmer was the proper man to be handed the broken pieces. He has the snarl, the crewcut and the arrogant pot belly of a drill sergeant, and the knowing, considerate eyes of a dutch uncle.

The ex-utility infielder's own career, three years of it with he even caught 35 games, was primarily distinguished by Zimmer ignoring doctors' warnings that another beaning could kill him. "Just put the metal plate in my head," said Zimmer."I'll worry about the playing."

Zimmer saw the game the way stubby, .235 hitters get it handed to them: take it or leave it. As a coach with the 1974-75 Red Sox, the team that went from being an also-ran to championship, Zimmer always seemed non-plused. Nothing in his experience prepared him for the fantasy that the team around him was living.

Only Zimmer in those champagne locker-room scenes seemed out of place, leery, almost disapproving, as though he knew a price would have to be paid for victories that were not hard-earned.

But when hard time came, Zimmer understood that.

He took his feistiest player, short-stop Burleson, and moved him from last to first in the batting order. Burleason hit .340 from that day on.

There were other changes. "We don't have base-stealing speed," said Zimmer then and now, "but I'm not going to sit back and wait for a damn three-run homer. We'll hit and run, take extra bases, and if it fizzles it's my fault.

"I've never managed a good team," says Zimmer, who was 114-190 with miserable talent in San Diego. "We're going to make things happen and let all this talent show."

Zimmer started hooking the high-priced starting pitchers in the late innings and went with his budget bullpen of Jim Willoughby, Tom House and Tom Murphy.

By the end of the season, Boston was flying straight. "We won 15 of our last 18 games and we were rolling," said Zimmer. "It left the constructive impression for the offseason."

Zimmer however, still thought the psychological damage of the hall might remain. "I thought I would have to have an opening-day meeting this year. I thought all winted about it. What am I going to say?"

"But when everybody reported and I saw what kind of shape they were in and the morals we had, I forgot about the speech. I just said, 'We're not going to think about last year. We're starting new with a helluva ball club. We're going to win a ton of games.'"

The team Zimmer has now is stronger on paper with a million-dollar acquisition of reliever Bill Campbell (17 wins, 20 saves), and the trades to get back old Fenway favorite George Scott and Bernie Carbo.

But the Red Sox loathe the word paper. "Paper doesn't mean bleep," said Dwight Evans. "Last year, we found out that you win on the field, not on paper, and maybe the Yankees will find that out this year."

Defeat has its advantages in sports. The record books are full of teams that won one pennant, tumbled the next year, then roared back. In the last decade, Baltimore and Cincinnati are examples.

Few things are more lethal than a team that feels it has been rightfully chastened by failure.

"The Yankees had more determination than we did last year," said Yastrazemski today. "They busted themselves and we cruised."

"There are three kinds of atmospheres on ball clubs," says the veteran Scott, who is currently slugging over 800. "Losers go into a shell and resent the next man when he speaks off. On winning teams, it's great. But something winning breeds money jealousy and complacency. The baddest, most dangerous team is one that's full of players like me who have had their pride hurt and want to vindicate themselves."

In baseball, you know you're going to fail sometime," said reliever Willoughby. "With the years, you have to mature in baseball."

If Boston has a concealed weapon, it is not their power batting-order - Burleson, Lynn, Jim Rice, Yastrzemski, Scott, Fish, Evans - nor even a strong bullpen and adequate starting rotation. It is the knowledge the Red Sox have gained about themselves.

"We have to win from the first day," says Burleson, knowing the Sox' first 24 games are against tailenders.

"We have to concentrate, but not get tight," said Evans, a torrid spring hitter who has repeatedly fretted himself into midseason slumps. "Now I don't care if I get a hit or not. If it happens, it happens. If I make an out, I go grab some pie in the clubhouse) and watch the game."

The Red Sox have lost some of their swagger and their flamboyant charm. They now worry when bad news arrives, like the sprained ankle of Fred Lynn this Thursday that will put him out for the first two weeks of the season.

But they have picked up some of Zimmer's hard-knocks wit and realism.

"We're had a great camp," says Zimmer. "(Coach) Al-Jackson tells me who's going to pitch, and my third-base coach, Edlie Yost, tells me everything else.

"Everybody knows Yost makes all the decisions on this club," said Zimmer, confidently sailing a stream of 'tobacco juice toward the field like a skipper who finally senses that his ship is back on course.