Of the world's adolescents, Billy Martin, at 49, may be the oldest. Boys caught in the whirlpool of bewildering emotions that marks time's passage sometimes do silly things, such as fall in love with a catcher's mitt.

For Billy Martin, baseball's bad boy, the childish irrationality most often takes on the form of a knuckle sandwich. If Ali wants a Great White Hope, here's his man.

Martin's latest attempt at pugilism came last weekend on national television when the Yankee manager propelled his slight and aging body toward the colossal structure of Reggie Jackson, the precious right fielder. Martin said Jackson had loafed in pursuit of a fly ball.

So he embarrassed Jackson by sending a man out to take his place and, upon Jackson's arrival in the dugout, Martin did what 13-year-olds often do when their playmates irritate them. He made a fist and said naughty words.

Happily for Martin's safety, his flight toward Jackson was interrupted by his old buddy, Yogi Berra, who works as a coach when he's not busy tackling the manager. While locked in the Berra-hug, Martin delivered an oration that, while not audible to television ringsiders, obviously was unfriendly. You could tell by the faces Martin made.

In return, Jackson, a ranking postpubescent in his own right, spoke unkindly to his boss. So far as is known, though neither boy threatened to take his ball and go home.

Whether it was done yesterday, as a New York newspaperman reported, or it is done tomorrow, Billy Martin will be fired by the Yankees. The team's owner, George Steinbrenner, denied Martin's firing, yesterday, saying, "There's nothing happening." The man is no historian.

A lot is happening with Billy Martin; the same things that have happened all his life. Having achieved success, he is destroying that success. The pattern of behavior is remarkable for its consistency, tragic in its implications.

In 13 seasons as a major league player, Martin hit .257. He also hit Jimmy Piersall, Clint Courtney, Jim Brewer (and was sued for $1,040,000), Gene Conley, Dave Boswell (a pitcher for one of his teams) and two traveling secretaries (one 60 years old).

Martin called Ted Williams "one of the worst players I ever saw," and he so enraged a gentle man named Boy Campanella that the Brooklyn catcher tagged him on the face and then said, "I was three inches off. I should have tagged him in his big mouth."

The Martin-Jackson dugout diplomacy, then, is nothing new for Billy the Kid, and that is its importance here.

No one cares if Martin were unfair to Jackson; he probably was. Nor would anyone much care if Martin took down Jackson's knickers and spanked him on national television; the right fielder's suggestion that New York named a candy bar for him, as it did for Babe Ruth, is enough to provoke a corporal attack.

The affair is important in that it is a visible symbol of Martin's style, a symbol of the sort that has preceded all his firings.

The Yankees are Martin's fourth managerial job. In each of the previous three, he has been fired the year after working miracles. Except at Minnesota, that is. He was fired there two weeks after winning a division championship in his first season as a manager.

That championship season was memorable. One of Martin's first acts was to bar the friends of team owner Calvin Griffith from the clubhouse. He later assaulted, with words, the team's front office for demoting two pitchers. Then he assaulted, with knuckles, pitcher Boswell.

Martin in 1972 won a division championship with Detroit. In March the next year, he resigned for a day, being coaxed back to work by misguided brass who on Sept. 1 corrected themselves by firing him.

Inside a week, Martin was hired by the Texas Rangers, who finished out that season in sixth place. In Martin's full-time presence the next year, Texas astronished baseball by finishing second in its division, an accomplishment so grand it made Martin the manager of the year.

And what happened the next July? Martin was fired not long after slapping the Rangers' 60-year-old traveling secretary.

And what happened 11 days later? The Yankees hired Martin. They finished in third place. And last year, Martin's first full campaign in New York, the Yankees won the league championship.

The pattern is firm. A great achievement one year, a firing the next. One thing more needs to be said. After most of his indiscretions, Billy Martin has said he's sorry, he won't do it again. Then he does it again.