Jim Kaat, veteran southpaw with 253 victories and Jim Wright, rookie right-hander with none, sat a few feet apart in the Philadelphia Phillies' locker room.

Their eyes met for an instant then quickly looked away. Bach wishes the other would disappear.

Theirs is the endless conflict of spring training, the only battle that has real meaning here: youth against age.

"I can still pitch and I can still win," said Kaat, 39, who has more victories than any other active hurler. "I tell myself that every day. I fight myself. This is no time to give in to self-pity.

"Nobody here believes in me. They think I'm washed up. I have'nt fit into the total pitching picture in the two years I've been here. They've really wasted me and messed me up. Mainly, the manager (Danny Ozark).

"In the back of my mind," said Kaat, "i know that if I have one more good comeback, I'll probably be in the Hall of Fame."

Wright, 23, could be Kaat's son. The two huge men - both 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds - might be friends if it weren't for that ancient arithmetical problem. The Phils have 10 spots - maximum - on their pitching staff. Nine jobs are locked up. Kaat and Wright are Nos. 10 and 11. Somebody has to go.

"You only have so many pitches in your arm, and I've been using mine up in the minors for five years," said Wright, American Association (AAA) pitcher of they year in '77 (14-6). "I've served my apprenticeship. And I've already had my first arm trouble. I'm ready for the majors now. Gimme the ball."

Stubborness vs. impatience? Or an aging star who deserves respect vs. a young talent who has earned his chance?

"It's the same complicated equation that every manager faces every spring," understated Ozark. "That's why we come down here."

Nevertheless, Kaat and Wright make an uncommonly rich case in point.

Kaat is perhaps the most underrated excellent player of his ear. Only one active pitcher is within 40 wins of his total. His 253-212 career record has been built with large inferior AL teams in Washington, Minnesota and Chicago.

The savvy curveballer called "Kitty" has won 20 games three times and 25 once. He has won 16 consecutive Golden Gloves and may be the best-fielding pitcher in history. He ranks in the top 25 in history in victories (24th) strikeouts (22nd) and innings (25th). Only eight men have started more games.

Yet Kaat's career - even his back-to-back 20-win years in '74 and '75 at 35 and 36 - have gotten little notice.

"I've been a workhorse, not a racehorse," Kaat said.

Now the thoroughbred is being pushed out toward pasture.

"I'm not a mopup man or a spot starter," said the proud Kaat, whose record has slipped from 20-14 to 12-14 to 6-11 in the last three years. "I can still start every fourth day. The more I pitch, the better I pitch.

"But the manager here has a hard time making decision. He starts teams. The rotation doesn't stay the same. That instability and uncertainly has bothered me and I think it's one reason that (lefty phenom) Randy Learch hasn't blossomed yet.

"It's possible that the Phillies don't want a strong, decisive manager," added Kaat. "Danny is the perfect fatherly type, a decent man, who can be a sort of caretaker for all the talent that the front office has assembled.

"If I was young and naive and could be led into thinking this was the right way to run a pitching staff, I might be better off. But I know it's wrong."

The other possibility, of course, is that Kaat is the last to realize that over the hill.

"When you get your brains beaten out several times in a row, you have to continue yourself, "'Hey, I can still get 'em out," said Kaat. "It's very depressing when everything you throw comes back faster than it went in."

Kaat longs for the days just two years ago when White Sox Manager Chuck Tanner mapped out his starting assignment six weeks in advance and pitching coach Johnny Sain taught him the quick-pitch, hurry-up method of junk-ball pitching that resurrected his career at age 35.

"You get in such a metal groove that you want to pitch any day you're strong enough to life the ball," he said.

Wright, even at his age, has almost as many worries as Kaat. He missed the last month of the '77 season with perhaps the most mysterious of all elbow injuries - the pinched ulnar nerve.

"When you have pain in your elbow and they can't figure out what it is," said Wright, "They finally decide its the ulnar nerve because there's nothing else left."

Wright is hearlded as the prize prospect in the entire Philadelphia organization. "What I feature mostly," he said shyly, "is heat."

That heat warms Ozark's fast-ball-loving heart. "I'm not going to keep Wright up here (with the Phils) unless he can pitch regularly," said Ozark. "He's too valuable to let rust in the bull pen."

Sounds good, right? Not really. Wright known it will take a heap of March hurling to win a regular staring job. And otherwise, it's black to Oklahoma City.

"Wirght's arm trouble has gone away," said Ozark. "But we don't want to force-feed him . . . A young guy gets hit a little, then he throws too hard, he injuries himself again and he's lost for the season."

"When I was the league's MVP," said N.Y. Met manager Joe Torre, everything was easy. Last year, when I was hangin' on as the 25th man on the team, everything had changed.

"I went into the manager's office one day to tell him I'd made dinner reservations for him at the dog six guys surrounded me and asked if I'd been released.

"Everybody says, 'Hang in there, Joe." and 'Way to go', but when the ax falls - Boom - you find out how many eyes have been watching you all along to see what would happen to the old guy."

Now that he has moved from cuttee to cutter, what's it like?

"It's worse," said Torre.

"I never had to face 'quitting day.' I went straight from being a player to a manager. But when you release a veteran, it's like handing out a miniature death sentence."

All agree that the final days of Spring training are worst for vets than rookies. "If Wright doesn't make it this year, he'll make it next year," said Kaat matter-of-factly.

But where will Kaat be in a month?

"I'm just being held in the wings for protection," he said bitterly. I'm one of their insurance policies in case Wright's elbow and (Jim) Lonborg's shoulder and Learch's confidence all go bad at once. Then they'll say, "Hey, Kaat. Looks like you're throwing better. Here's the ball."

Kaat has learned that a veteran must shop around for himself. He has nagged the Phils' front office into clearing the way for him to be waived back to the American League.

"That's my best chance," he said "In some ways I hope everybody else on the staff looks great so they can let me go."

But Kaat said it without complete conviction. Who will pick up his large contract at age 39? "Boston," he said. "That's where I want to go." Then he shook his head. "They scouted me in a game I get hit hard."

What keeps a well-to-do horse breeder like Kaat punishing himself in private, embarrassing himself in public.

"Many a truth is said in jest," he jested. "Baseball sure beats working. "It's the life in general that keeps you going. I feel young and I hate to give up something I love. Also, it's frightening to see guys after they retire.

"I saw Al Kaline (3,007 hits) the other day and he'd aged amazingly. He looked gaunt, almost emaciated.

"I said, 'Can that be the guy who was hitting frozen ropes off me just three years ago'?"

Jim Kaat who has more wins than any other man in baseball and who hopes for the Hall of Frame, looks down at his youthfully conditioned body, already punished into mid-season shape.

I've never felt better in my life.I've never thrown better, though I need work, lots of work, to be sharp," he said.

Then he added quietly, "It's tough to love the gameafter she's stopped loving you."