The second-place Chicago White Sox will do just about anything to stay up where the air is clean and the fans are cheering.

So what if the White Sox defense is atrocious and the team ERA is 4.07? Who cares if the club's coltish base-runner is suicidal and its seven .300 hitters are almost unknown?

Once you've lived six months in a cellar, the way the Chisox did last season, you'll do anything to play in the sunshine.

So today it was Jim Essian, a second-string catcher with a penchant for rule-bending plays, who flimflammed the White Sox to an 11-inning 6-4 victory over the Baltimore Orioles.

The Orioles were ahead, 5-4, with two out in the bottom of the ninth when Pat Kelly attempted to steal home.

With Al Bumbry on first and Kelly on third, a base he had achieved on a scratch hit, a sacrifice and a fade-away slide steal of third, the Orioles tried a double steal.

Kelly got an enormous jump on lefthander Dave Hamilton.

So Essian took the only gamble available. He leaped from his crouch an instant before Hamilton released the pitch and jumped astride home plate. The naked, disbelieving eyes of 16,409 fans (and a half-dozen slow motion replays) saw Essian with his left foot touching home, his right beside it and his glove a foot in front of the plate to catch Hamilton's fast ball.

The righthanded batter, rookie Billy Smith, was so shocked at the sudden company that he stepped in the bucket, removing himself from the play and leaving the way clear for Essian to tag the head-first sliding Kelly out by a whisker.

"I had to do it," said Essian. "If Smith had swung the bat, my head would have been a line drive into center field and it would have been interference on me and the game would have been over. But I think the play was so close that I couldn't have gotten Kelly any other way."

What neither Essian, Smith, umpire Ken Kaiser nor Oriole manager Earl Weaver realized was that Essian had violated an obscure rule - number 7.07 - that covers something called "a catcher's balk."

"If, with a runner . . . trying to score by means of a . . . steal, the catcher . . . steps on, or in front of home base without possession of the ball, or touches the batter or his bat," says the rule," the pitcher shall be charges with a balk, the batter shall be awarded first base on the interference and the ball is dead."

"What did the replay show? What's the rule?" Essian asked after the game, still grinning. "I was wondering what I did."

Actually, Essian is a master of deceitful premeditation in such situations and is proud of it. A week ago he thwarted a first-and-third double steal by pegging the white sponge in his catcher's mit toward second as a decoy, then picked a runner off third with the ball.

"I told the umpire I might do it," chuckled Essian. "He said it was unprofessional, but not against the rules."

The Chisox don't quibble over such ethical distinctions. They'll leave the opposition and the umpires in a quandary anyway they can.

Umpire Kaiser admitted after the game, "I had to watch the pitch, the batter, the catcher and the runner on that play. I honestly don't know if Essian stepped on the plate or got his glove in front of it. I'd have to say he stayed behind it.

"It took 10 guys in the press box 15 minutes, four replays and a rule book to figure it out, and I had one fiftieth of a second," said the rookie umpire. "Nevertheless, a rule is a rule and I'll wonder about this one."

Today's Chicago victory was a typical White Sox product. Their bats produced a dozen hits, including two home runs, to overcome a multitude of sins. "That's the way we play," said reliever Bert Johnson. "We just beat the ball and hope our mistakes don't kill us."

The O's, after 10 innings of defensive magic, finally made a faux pas in the 11th and that was all the White Sox - who led the major leagues in both average (.289) and runs when they came to town Friday - needed to get two unearned runs.

Smith, the man who failed to stroke Essian's head into center field, booted a Chet Lemon grounder to start the 11th. Lemon promptly stole second and took third when Smith failed to flag Dempsey's one-hop throw.

Loser Dennis Martinez eventually wild-pitched home Lemon with the winning run, while Oscar Gamble singled in an insurance run later in the inning.

It seemed impossible that the White Sox - called The South Side Hit Men for their high averages and The Blue Monsters for their navy uniforms - even to the 11th inning.

In the first inning they gave the O's a three-run gift, when center fielder Lemon misplayed a two-out Lee May bloop into a single, then kicked an Eddie Murray single off his shine to let May score. Lemon also missed the plate by 40 feet with his throw to home. Pure Chisox.

And it was also pure White Sox that Lemon should atone for his fielding by knocking out starter Ross Grimsley with a two-run opposite-field homer that tied the game 4-4 in the sixth.

The most offensive Sox defender, however, was shortstop Alan Bannister who made two errors (that's seven in his last seven games) and misplayed two other balls. But like any good Chicagoan, he forgave himself instantly and merely tagged two singles and a home run off the foul pole.

"All we think about is hitting," explained ex-Oriole Royal Stillman. "We're weak fundamentally. That may hurt us as the season goes on."

Certainly any team that in built on .300 hitters of as little renown as Bannister, Essian, Lamer Johnson, Lemon and Eric Soderholm, is winning on borrowed time.

Like Al Capone's boys with the Untouchables on their tail, these South Side hit men in their menacing, almost black uniforms know they are prospering outside the bounds of baseballs' rigid laws.

"We don't do things the approved way," said reliever Johnson. "Today was typical. Win a game in the 11th that maybe we really lost in ninth. Playing with us is like sitting on a time bomb. Maybe we'll go up in smoke, and, hey, mabye we'll get even better."