The idea is taking shape here - as it did in Minnesota, Detroit and Texas before - that victory may not be worth the price, if the price is Billy Martin.

The New York manager is on the ropes in his beloved Yankee Stadium as surely as if his name were Billy Cohn and Joe Louis were closing the ring, muttering, "You can run, but you can't hide."

For all his 49 years Martin has loved nothing better than a brawl, but now he is trying to run, trying to hide, trying to rabbit punch his way out of the clinches.

His pinched, fever-blistered lips clench tighter, his Durante nose juts defiantly, his eyes dart suspiciously.

With one breath he says, "Everything will be all right when the pitching comes around." With the next he snaps, "If we were 50 games ahead they wouldn't get off my back."

"They" are all the enemies Martin has made in 30 pro years, plus the enemies he just thinks he has.

Martin's baseball life - which is to say his life - is an open wound, festering fast.

His team is in third place, not first. Attendance is down more than 150,000. The earned-run averages of four of his best pitchers, Catfish Hunter, Mike Torrez, Don Gullett and Ken Holtzman, are disasters - 4.18, 4.47, 4.94, and 5.35.

Hunter has chronic shoulder miseries, Gullett a chronci pain in the neck. Many say Holtzman simply retired prematurely the day he signed a five-year contract.

At all his managerial stops, Martin has been in a constant race to see whether he would wear out his welcome first with the front office, the press or a few key players. This time it may be a dead heat.

Martin has never made it to Year IV in any job and this is his third season with the Yanks. The Martin Express is on schedule.

Billy the Kid's personality runs on iron rails. Once the track is chosen, there is no way to swerve or go back. A disciplinarian, a baseball absolutist, Martin treats his players, his bosses, his interviewers and his public just the way he treats a pitcher who must be relieved.

"When I go to the mound," he says with relish, "we don't have a discussion. I tell 'em."

For the last week Martin has been "tellin' 'em' even if it costs him the one job he has coveted above all others and which he swears he would like to hold until he dies.

When his front office activated rookie Dell Alston, rather than veteran catcher Elrod Hendricks as he wanted, Martin sounded off so loudly that his owner fined him $2,500 and his general manager gave him a public lecture about who was who's boss.

But Martin wouldn't stop. Three times in the last week he has benched Reggie Jackson, the $3 million free agent apple of owner George Steinbrenner's eye.

When word reached Martin that Sport Magazine was hyping a 10-week old interview in which Jackson had criticized teammate Thurman Munson "He's being so damn insecure about the whole (leadership) thing . . ."), Martin took the hard way out.

Instead of blasting Sport for billing an ancient, out-of-date interview as fresh news, Martin took a veiled rip at Jackson, saying, "Leadeship is done by example, not by mouth."

A day later, then Munson was injured, the issue of "Alston vs. Hendricks" reappeared. Out of a tangle of strategic possibilities, Martin picked the tactless one again. Instead of pointing out that Alston had started a ninth-inning rally with a pinch double, he chose to observe that he could not subsequently pinch-hit for Fran Healy because he did not have Hendricks available.

"The last time I talked about this, it cost me money," fumed Martin, choosing to second-guess GM Gabe Paul again, rather than praise Alston for his hit.

"There is a way to simplify most situations and a way to make them more complicated," said Baltimore Oriole Brooks Robinson about the incident. "Martin seems to be able to make things more complicated every time."

Just hours later Martin was back again, making a rat's nest out of a simple May defeat. Instead of explaining to the press why he had benched Jackson or why he had yanked Mickey Rivers in mid game after he failed to hustle, Martin hid in the off-limits trainer's room.

Martin has always treated the press with only slightly less contempt than he has umpires. But even for Martin, last Saturday was a first.

Out of a room full of reporters, Martin managed to curse, push and spill coffee on Dick Young, who not only has white hair, but who also happens to write a syndicated sports column for the newspaper with the largest circulation in the civilized world, the New York Daily New.

Martin could have broken a bat over the head of the chap from the Newark Star-Ledger and made fewer headlines than he did with a teaspoon of coffee on Young's lapel.

But it was a perfect example of Martin challenging those two things that make him see irrational red: authority and criticism.

Martin has a sign in his office that reads: "Company Rules - Rule 1; The Boss is always right. Rule 2: If the Boss is wrong, see Rule 1.

Martin's difficulty has always been that he wants to be the only boss where baseball decisions are concerned. "Billy understands baseball, but he doesn't understand life," said Baltimore manager Earl Weaver, not in his usual needling tone, but with concern.

"You got to do what the owner says. That's not baseball; that's life. That's always Billy's undoing.

"I think the Yankees get along with each other. The only problem I see on that club is Billy and Steinbrenner. Billy told the owner in Texas, 'You sell pipes and I'll run the ballclub.' Well, you don't tell the owner and the general manager what to do. You make suggestions."

Weaver also points out that Martin seldom wonders why millionaires would buy baseball teams and nurture them, often for little profit compared to their other businesses.

"They want to hear people say how smart they are for the moves the team makes. They want to be in the papers. Above all they want to be loved in their city," said Weaver.

And that currently Martin's most serious problem in New York.

The Yankees, as they are now hiding from the press, sulking, barely speaking to each other, playing as individuals and not as a team - are becoming an embarrasment to Steinbrenner.

New York's conscience has been ruffled for some years over that blue-and-alabaster bauble - Yankee Stadium - gleaming in the midst of the crushing squalor of the south Bronx.

The juxtaposition was hard enough to swallow when the Yankees were swift and happy in '76. But now, as the team makes an almost daily mockery of itself, even the dichard fan is tempted to stay away. The front office notices.

For Billy Martin baseball has never been a game, but "a field of honor," a place for earnest, no-holds-barred warfare. At all his way stations Martin has brought victories, but at the expense of innocent pleasure.

Just a year ago New York's fickle fans, whose mood changes as often as the special of Sardi's, called Martin a genius, a man who had won a pennant that no other skipper could have masterminded.

This year those same fans are saying that the only manager who might find a way to keep the Yankkees from winning the world's title is that some Martin. The Yanks have bought a team with so much talent that they hardly need a brilliant, hell-bent strategist. Wouldn't a nice-guy Sparky Anderson type - who could xerox the opening day lineup 162 times and keep everybody happy - be better?

In his mood of caustic melancholy Martin waits impatiently for Hunter's sore arm to mend, for Gullett to rediscover his pitching motion, even for Jackson to blast seven of his homers in a week. Victory is all that Billy Martin promises, and he knows he is in danger of breaking his word.

A box of expensive Havana cigars sits on Martin's desk. They are a peace offering from Steinbrenner. But a soothing cigar seems unlikely to temper Martin's fierce and contradictory ways. If his past repeats itself, he might well explain his plight as one of Turgenev's tragic characters did: "I could not simplify myself."