Jim Lonborg soaked his elbow in a bucket of ice, his skin turning blistered from its cold.

The veteran Philadelphia pitcher, in his 14th major league season, seemed to welcome the familiar numbness, which others might call a frigid pain, gradually taking the place of the real pain that danced through his arm.

"There's nothing in particular wrong with my arm," said the 35-year-old right-hander." "It just doesn't work anymore.

"I've had arm trouble since I broke into the minors 15 years ago. It's never entirely left me alone. There's just a general weakness now though-out the entire arm from the shoulder down.

"It feels fine. Let me make that clear," said Lonborg, who battled his recalcitrant body for year to stay in the starting rotation of a winning team at his advanced age.

"It likes the ice," said Lonborg, looking at his arm as though some malicious Martian had transplanted it onto him. "The cold helps it recover."

"I never sit on the right side of a bus or airplane where my arm might be in air-conditioning or a draft," says right-hander Tom Seaver of Cincinnati.

"I can't sleep on my right side. If I accidentally roll over on it, I wake right up. I guess it's never out of your mind, even when you're asleep.

"You arm is your best friend," said Seaver, grinning, "but you've got to treat it like it was your worst enemy. I swear, it'll get you if it can."

Even pitchers themselves hate to face the reality of how undependable, how changeable their arms actually are. All know the roller coaster horror stories of hurlers like Pat Dobson who won 20 games, dropped to three wins in a year, struggled back to 19 victories, then plummeted suddenly back to three again.

But they hate to face the fact that this syndrome is the hard rule, not the exception.

Of all baseball's active pitchers, how many have won 15 or more games for more than five seasons in a row?

Plenty, one would think, since the list of hitters who have amassed 20 homers or 75 RBI or 280 batting averages - or any comparable middle-echelon statistic - for 10 seasons in a row is as long as your arm.

The answer is four - Gaylord Perry (12 straight years), Don Sutton (8), Seaver (7) and Ferguson Jenkins (6).

"Any injury is worse for a pitcher," commiserates the frequently hospitalized slugger Johnny Bench. "A hitter can make adjustments, work around the pain, even develop a new swing. You can avoid aggravating the injury and still hit the ball.

"But any time a pitcher throws, it's a reminder," said Bench. "I caught Gary Nolan for 10 years and he was the worst I ever saw. He hurt all the time. Nobody can tell what he went through. But I watched his face for 10 years and I don't think he ever threw a pitch that didn't hurt."

"I try not to have too much sympathy for 'em," said Philadelphia catcher Bob Boone, torn by his position of being a helper of pitchers, and one of the hunted.

"But," Boone adds. "I'd sure hate to have all my eggs hanging on my cords."

Those cords - tendons, ligaments, muscles - in the shoulder, elbow and even wrist and fingers, are constantly trying to go on the fritz.

"Pitching is a totally unnatural motion," says Lonborg, who was a biology major at Stanford. "It's a hazard just ot be throwing."

Most baseball fans have no conception of what their favorite pitcher looks like 10 minutes after he walks off the mound. Bill Lee has his shoulder in a harness that looks as if he had been struck by mortar fire.

Jim Palmer practically runs from the mound to the ice bucket, unless he wants a special shoulder massage or whirlpool treatment first.

"There's only one cure for what's wrong with all of us pitchers," says Palmer, who has had or thought he had, almost every known pitching malady, "and that's to take a year off."

"Then, after you've gone a year without throwing, quit altogether."

The Pitchers Union, the underground grapevine of counterintelligence on hitters, is well known.

But the Pitchers Medical Underground is just as complete and through. Special remedies, fad doctors, new training regimens, hypnosis, pitching coaches with mystic powers all are discussed.

Word travels even faster about exotic or terrifying arm injuries. The day Wayne Garland of Cleveland found out that he would miss the rest of the season because of the dread torn rotator cuff, Palmer was on the phone to him for details.

By the next afternoon, Palmer was showing identical symptoms.

Before his next start, Palmer went to his personal physician in the afternoon. The moment the game ended, Palmer went to his doctor again for an after-midnight re-examination while the arm was still warm.

"Don't ask me anything about it" pleaded Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver. "All I know is Jimmy talked to Wayne and now he's worried about his rotar cuff."

Palmer immediately went on a streak in which he allowed three earned runs in 67 innings.

"I guess," said Weaver, allowing himself a touch of whimsy," that Jim's rotar cuff must not be totally torn.

Palmer, like many veterans, gets at least four levels of medical opinion on his arm - the team trainer, a team doctor, a local personal physician and a nationally know specialist (in Palmer's case Dr. Robert Kerlan in Los Angeles).

Where medicine and the arms are concerned there are only two types of pitchers - hypocondriacs and fools.

"A lot of us have learned the hard way that team doctors are seldom specialists" says Lonborg, who had bitter experience in that area with Boston a decade ago.

"As you get older, you learn to be a patient with it," said Lonborg of his third-person neuter friend. "You learn to put the long-term interests of your career ahead of the short-term interests of your team.

"Time and proper treatment are the only remedy if you want to avoid corrective surgery. I tell the doctor, Get out the diagrams and the medical books. Don't leave me in the dark. I'm smart enough to understand this, and I want it explained."

However, even with his science background, it took Lonborg years, and a near-brush with a premature end to his career, before he would confront a doctor and ask, "What's going on here"

"The way young pitchers are treated is brutal, practically a scandal," says Lonborg. "'Give him a little rest and get him back out there,' is the common theory."

"I can see it happening now with (Mark) Fidrych. He's tried to come back too soon twice and he's gone back on the disabled list both times. Now he's doing ti a third time.

"Some organizations like the Mets, who have always lived by pitching, never seem to have a sore arm.

"Other teams, like the Reds, have always had young pitchers with sore arms. It doesn't seem coincidental."

The greatest debate within baseball for the century has been how to care and feed a pitching arm. No question approaches that one in importance to any team.

Seaver offers the classic theory on Wind sprints and the art of Arm Maintainence.

"Let me make it as simple as I can," says Seaver like a kindly bishop explaining dogma to a doubter.

"Here is your body and here is the baseball. You want to put 100 percent of the energy in your body into that ball. That creates velocity.

"But it's an impossibility to use all 100 percent. The unused energy of the windup and delivery has to dissipate somewhere. It's going to be absorbed by your body.

"How that energy, that shock at the end of every pitch, is absorbed, determines whether you have arm trouble.

"You want to finish your delivery so that the big muscles of the body - the thighs and buttocks - absorb the shock.

"That's why pitchers run all these damn wind sprints, to strengthen the large lower-body muscles. If your legs are weak, then you finish your delivery stiff-legged as you get tired rather than flexible and bouncy and you end up with a ruined arm."

"In pitching," summarizes Seaver somberly, "the smallest muscles in your body - the ones in the wrist, elbow and front of the shoulder - get the most abuse. You have to find a way to minimize that."

A nice, rational, irrefutable argument, right? Completely wrong, as far as super pitching coach Johnny Sain, 102-game reliever Mike Marshall and Sain disciple Jim Kaat are concerned.

"There's nothing wrong with running," say Katt, "but Sain teaches you that you strengthen the arm and become a better pitcher by throwing, not by running. The only way to strengthen the arm is to use it, not rest it while you run a million wind sprints.

"Sain and Marshall (whose ideas are similar) drive the old-timers crazy," says kaat. "It's a completely new concept after 100 years, and it's before its time."

"Nuts," says Seaver. "I wouldn't let Sain near me. All I can say about Marshall is that one year he pitched in 106 games and I saw him at the All-Star game and three years later (last year) he was out of a job."

Arms, unfortunately, are not a subject of casual debate in locker rooms, like the Bakke case or whether the manager should be fired. Arms are serious business.

"The essence of the pitching motion is to be aggressive, yet be relaxed and comfortable," says Lonborg. "But out on the mound, every pressure, every internal tension puts stress on your muscles and keeps you from being fluid.

"If we all had a million dollars in the bank, we'd pitch relaxed and there'd be a lot less arm trouble. Every once in a while, you see a guy like Mickey Lolich who goes on for years because he slings it up there like he doesn't have a care in the world."

Tommy John of Los Angeles calls himself, "The only righthanded south-paw," because a tendon from his right forearm has been transplanted to his left elbow by Dr. Frank Jobe to save his career.

Randy Jones of San Diego is semi-successfully coming back from nerve surgery in his elbow. Two young fire-ballers - Frank Tanana and Dennis Eckersley - both claim that their best speed has abandoned them before the age of 25 and that they now are learning to be total pitchers.

Within the last week a new fad cure hias arrived, one that has had dramatic first results. Dr. Robert Cohen has performed a still-shadowy operation called "shoulder manipulation" on three million-dollar pitchers: Don Gullett, Catfish Hunter and Fidrych.

Gullett, after being put under anesthetic and having his shoulder moved into extreme position to fear down adhesions and free movement in the joint, has won three straight games and says he feels reborn.

Hunter and Fidrych were on their way to Cohen's table within hours of Gullett's return from the land of the disabled.

After all, the dugouts of the major leagues have long been filled with men who understand what the public sometimes forgets - that the pennant race and the arms race are usually one and the same.