Paul Blair is an unlikely hero. They said his time was gone. The people in Baltimore, where Blair had been a picture of grace for a decade, said it was too bad. A shame, they said, but the beaning did it. Blair had been hit in the head with a pitch. After that, he wasn't the same, they said, and who could blame him? Look at him fall away from pitches, they said. He's gone.

So the Orioles sent him away. In the golden years of Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson and Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer, when the Orioles were winning big, Paul Blair was part of it. He was a .260 hitter with speed who played center field beautifully, catching everything within mortal's reach and some beyond it.

But the whispers wouldn't stop. Fear is every athlete's companion; not only that he might fall, but that he might be hurt in the trying. A knee may come apart, and elbow rip. They could be the end of a career. A baseball thrown against the side of a man's head could be the end of his life, and once a man is hit, hardly anyone believes that man can handle the compounded fear. Paul Blair is done, they said.

The numbers agreed. He hit .218 in 1975. Last year he was pathetic: .197 with 16 runs batted in in 145 games. The Orioles traded him to the Yankees for a good, young outfielder with a bad knee, Elliott Maddox, and that, everyone agreed, was the last they'd hear of Paul Blair. A shame, they said.

And here he is, a year later, a hero. His handle-hit single started a ninth-inning rally that won the championship game of the American League playoff - just when that game and the whole tumultuous season seemed to be lost. And in Game 1 of the World Series the other night. Blair's ground single drove in the winning run in the last of the 12th inning.

"I'm on a high and I might not come down for three or four more days." Blair said today.

On a team with a $2.9-million candy bar, a team whose manager seems bent on self-destruction, a team where the walrus-mustached catcher and the walking-on-eggs center fielder want to be traded - this team is K-rayyy-zeeee - Paul Blair is a pillar of common sense. He's been down and now he's up, and we all should cheer.

"It's been an unbelievable week," he said.

At 3:30 Sunday afternoon, five hours before the Yankees would play the Royals with the pennant at stake, Blair walked by his manager, Billy Martin, in a hotel coffee shop.

"You're in right field tonight," Martin said.

"O.K.," Blair said.

And then he got nervous.

And then he really got nervous.

"It was the most nervous time of my life," he said today, smiling.

Taking the candy bar's place in right field, Blair was 0 for 3 until the ninth inning. As the Royals hit in their part of the eighth. Blair stood in the outfield and wondered if he'd get to bat in the last inning. In Baltimore, they sat Blair down at the big moments, he said. They said nothing killed a rally faster than a Blair appearance at bat. "if I was playing for Earl Weaver (the Orioles' manager), I never would have batted in the ninth against the Royals," Blair said.

They say Blair is afraid of hard-throwing right-handers. He hits from the right side.And in the ninth at K.C., he would be facing Dennis Leonard, the hardest-throwing righthander the Royals have.

Blair remembers it vividly. "Martin told me, 'Go up there and battle your way on,'" he said. "I figured Leonard would come right after me with a fast ball. It was a ball high. Now I know he's going to come with a strike. It was high and inside, but I was looking inside, so I just swung at it. Missed. I'd really been nervous, but I kinda settled down then. Then he came with a fast ball and two sliders. The last slider. I just barely fouled it off. Somebody up there must have been looking out for me. And on the next pitch, a little low, I got the hit. On the handle. A blooper. The hit I'll never forget in the biggest game of my life."

When he arrived at first base, Blair said, the coach there, Bobby Cox, told him, "You just won the game."

Soon enough, the Yankees had scored three runs for a 5-3 victory and two nights later, against the Dodgers, who was at bat with men on first and second in the bottom of the 12th? Who had missed two attempts to bunt and then thought, "If I get a single, I'm going to be a hero?"

The Oriole reject.

Newspapermen wrote down Blair's words today. He said Weaver "is the one who said I couldn't hit." They asked him about the beaning and Blair said, "I hit the same way now that I did in 1965. I stand close to the plate and I'm a pull hitter, so I pull away."

Blair said nobody brings up the beaning unless he's not hitting well. "Then they pinpoin it. I have slumps like everyone else. Look. It happened in 1970 - and in the '70 World Series, I hit .474 and tied the Series record for hits in a five-game Series. They didn't tell me then I was afraid."

In 1974, Blair said, he was named the most valuable Oriole. But then came the two bad seasons - "They tried everybody in center field" - and now Blair, 33, is a Yankee and happy. "When you see you're wanted on a ball club, when you know you're needed, then you feel more confident. The skip (Martin) went out on a limb for me and I appreciate it."

Mostly used for defense this year behind three outfielders with long-term contracts. Blair hit .262 in only 164 at-bats. More important, he delivered six game-winning hits - the sixth-best figure on the club - and had 25 runs batted in.