Most atheletes encase their bodies in egg-shell egos, so the moment would have shattered him.

Robinson is a TV commentator, now, having been - in the judgement of many - demoted from the celestial peak of "player" to the earthly plateau of "person."That's why he appeared recently in the Oakland A's club-house wearing a suit and tie.

Robinson was rummaging through a brief-case when a young clubhouse boy, who meant no harm, approached the strangely garbed man and asked, "Who are you?"

Given a name, the youngster rolled his bubble-gum wad from left cheek to right and asked, "Do you play ball?"

An assasin's rifle could have launched a deadlier bullet.

Brooks Robinson does not play ball any more. Last year he packed away 16 Gold Gloves and 23 years of magic because his arms couldn't carry them around any longer.

It was "the best life you can imagine," Robinson said. "I think I'll always be thought of as Brooks Robinson, the ballplayer. The single hardest thing about leaving is that you're leaving a love, a passion. It was my whole life.

"I dreaded this. Part of my life is gone."

You might say Robinson expected a difficult transition. "I thought it would kill me," is how he put it.

But it didn't, and he is happy now, because the sharpest daggers had been driven in and yanked out while he was still in uniform, long before the clubhouse boy threw a few harmless darts.

"I always said they'd have to tear the uniform off me," Robinson said, "But when I stopped playing and started watching, the desire left me.

"Last year took the life outta me. I came back thinking I could play. I was the oldest guy in both leagues - I never thought I'd be the oldest guy in the league. Anyway, a month and a half into the season, Doug DeCinces broke his nose, so I was called on to play for three or four straight days.

"But it was like spring training. Here I was, 40 years old, and I hurt all over. I told myself, "You can't play like this. This is it."

The awful discovery rang loud and clear on a day in Kansas City when Robinson hurt both arms simply diving back to first base on a pickoff attempt. That night he sat on a bar stool and said to coach Jim Frey, "There's no way I can play."

It was the first and worst of the crushing moments dressed up in the word "twilight."

"That was the night I knew it was over," Robinson said. "For the rest of the year, I was spinning my wheels, I wouldn't say it was embarrassing, but overall, I was just there."

The very idea is frightening, because the only thing worse than being down and out is going up and down and out. Like so many All-Stars, Robinson has scraped t* he sky, and now he was dragging weary feet in the mud of uncertainty.

"The big thing," Robinson said, "is that you don't know what you're going to do or where you're going to go."

Adjustment to retirement recently has been accepted as a bona fide crisis, even for those over 65 who were once thought to be content with shuffleboard. But the professional athlete's lot is more painful because he is forced out in the prime of his life-usually before the age of 40.

For most people at age 40, the mysteries of one's trade have begun to unravel and the mind is a marvelous balance of apst experience and new ideas. At 40, an athelete has learned his game like his zip code. So just when he is mentally ready to handle any situation afield, his gift leaves his body, and suddenly one night he is sitting on a bar stool in some strange town wondering about survival.

Billie Jean King, the 34-year-old tennis queen who recently bounded off sevewral surgery tables to make a singles comeback, explained. "A good athlete is a perfectionist. Atheletes would retire and go into some other field. But they realize it would take 20 years to become as good at anything else as they were at their sport."

At 40, there is not enough time to start at the bottom and reach the top again. How many top-notch doctors, lawyers, artists or educators would have not fly into depression if told at 40 "You must do something else now."

It is no wonder, then, that athelete's departing scences are so peculiarly tragic:

Sonny Jurgensen, weeping at his press conference, saying, "I can still do the job."

George Blanda, carrying one suitcase and walking alone out of the Oakland Raider summer training camp, after finding his locker empty.

Daryle Lamonica, standing on the sideline of a 1975 World Football League game, watching as someone named Mike Ernst is put in the game ahead of him. That was the last time anyone saw Lamonica on a football field. He never returned, quitting without a word.

It is no wonder that they hang on when they no longer win golf tournaments, that they try to come bank with pitches or punches that have lost their sting. It is no wonder, after retirement, that they dangle from the fringes of their sports universe doing television broadcasts, coaching minor leaguers and selling tennis shoes. It is the only available methodone for the strongest of all addictions: heroism.

The athlete has taken over as the American hero. He is more real than the extinct cowboy, more touchable than the cellophaned astronaut, more trustworthy than the politician, more appealing than the U.S. Marine and tougher than the glittery rock star.

Ron Fairly, the 39-year-old California Angel who hopes to stretch his career onto four decades, says an athletete's life is different from anyone else's "because of the gaps.

"Our highs are so much higher. Our lows are lower, because we are cheered and booed by 50,000 people as they happen."

An athlete does not even have to reach the pinnacle of a Robinson, Jurgensen or King to covet his own past.

Jim Lester was the middleweight boxing champion of California in 1961 and 1962. Lester didn't make a mountain of money or sell out Madison Square Garden. But he was special. He was a champion.

Today Lester is 33 years old and a member of the San Francisco police department. One could argue that he is of more value to society now, because his new vocation is to ride the "No. 51 Silver" and "No. 22 Filmore" buses through two of the toughest neighborhoods in America and the peel the thugs off the backs of the drivers.

But a bus crowed with frowning faces does not an arena make, and Lester longs to once again blot the blows that have caused scar tissue to hang permanently over both his eyes.

Not long ago, a new reporter from the Oakland Tribune, and Lester was so excited to be interviewed that he told Ralph Wiley then and there, "I'm coming back, as soon as I can get enough money."

In speech slowed almost to a halt by past punches to his jaw and larynx, Lester said, "I know I can still fight."

Jurgensen says every athlete thinks about a comeback. But few attempt it.

Author, TV performer and former World Series hero Jim Bouton has sold his house and is back pitching Class AA ball in Savannah, Ga., at the age 39. So intriguing a comback is this, that it rated a multipage epistle in Sports Illustrated magazine and the calls of dozens of reporters who asked, "Why?"

Bouton said one of his TV producers understands, that the producer said to him, "I know why you're doing this. Because when you die, you're dead for a long time."

Such insightful truisms notwithstanding, Jurgensen says, "I don't see how Bouton could think he'll ever be back in the majors. I read that story and I couldn't believe it. I think Bouton's writing a book."

Jurgensen admits there are times "when you're out having a drink or two and you say, 'I could do it.' But if I ever got tempted to come back, all I would have to do is look at one reel of the Dallas defense. I don't have anything left to prove, and physically, I could not take the beating."

The tought trickles into the cranium nonetheless, because the former life is missed.Jurgensen and Robinson agree that what they miss most is the team.

"When you're playing on a team, everything else becomes secondary - even your family," Jurgensen said. "You get used to sleeping, partying and suffering with the team. You miss the camaraderie, and a team is the only place in life you can get it - except maybe in the service."

"What I miss," Robinson said, "is being around the fellas and shooting the bull. I love to talk to players before a TV game. I do feel left out. But I don't want to go out there (on the field). I'm on the other side of the fence now."

The prospect of scaling that fence keeps some athletes on the playing side after their skills have dwindled.

"It is difficult for an athlete to be totally objective about himself,' said Elgin Baylor, who was still an adequate forward when he left the National Basketball Association after 14 seasons. "It's like trying to tell someone he has a nervous twitch - he'll swear he doesn't do it.

"For some reason, some hang on and some give it up gracefully. For me, it was very simple. I knew I wasn't as good as I used to be. I think ego has a great deal to do with it. The crowd, the cheers, the attention - we all have to face the fact that we might not get recognized, might not get asked for autographs or invited to celebrity golf tournaments.

"I'm no psychiatrist or psychologist, but I think some of the athletes are insecure and don't know what to do without that."

Baylor obviously is happy and well-adjusted, but one must footnote the fact that he is, after all, on the sports methadone program. He is head coach of the New Orleans Jazz, and as he says, "If I were out of coaching, I might have a whole different attitude."

"You minimize your injuries. You try to avoid the confrontation of the end. You feel you will have the intelligence to realize when the end is near," Jurgensen said, "but so few of us do."

Why is it so difficult?

"Because," Jurgensen said, "one day you're at the end of it. You're frightened."

The quitting day is a nightmare, even for the player not burdened with deciding, who had to accept a doctor's verdict instead. Bob Gaillard, a star guard at the University of San Francisco, had no pro career because of a surgeon's scalpel.

"You can't go back, you can't go forward, and you can't stay in the same place," Gaillard said. "It's depressing.

"The hardest moment is when you sit down and think of all the hours and all the sacrifices, knowing you're not going to be able to use them. It's the ultimate in frustration."

The frustration jabbed him so sharply that even a successful college coaching career couldn't ease the pain. Two seasons ago, Gaillard was voted national college coach of the year at his alma mater, but less than a year later, he announced his retirement. There were lots of reasons, but one was that he could never rein the galloping desire to shoot the free throws himself.

"I am too competitive to coach," Gaillard said. "It meant so much to play. Unlike coaching, you can really control your own destiny."

Just last week Gaillard started his new job, doing public relations for Pro Keds.

Gaillard was forced out of playing and fled from coaching. But what of the sports figure who hangs on? And what exactly is hanging on?

"Arnold Palmer is a perfect example," Gaillard said. "There's an unwritten rule that says once you can't perform the way you used to, you're supposed to quit. But the man loves to play golf. So why shouldn't he?"

"You always hear people say, 'poor Willie Mays. He embarrassed himself," Robinson said. "I don't agree. I believe they (the Mets) must have thought he was the best player for the position. They say the Babe's last couple years were way down. Who cares?

"You do what you can, and when it's time to quit, they'll let you know."

It is revealing to notice how many of the athletes talked about the situation using the pronoun "you" instead of "I." So the question was gently put to Robinson. Did you stay too long?

"I certainly realized that offensively I was not the player. I was. It was a struggle," Robinson said. "But to this day, I can play defense with anybody. I worked on my swing and made some improvements. I was not embarrassing myself. When it was time to quit, I quit.

The adjustment, of course, is all the worse because athletes never seem to be prepared. Realizing this. Robinson has joined some lawyers and formed a group called Personnal Management Associates to help athletes invest and prepare for the future. Robinson also works for Crown Petroleum in Baltimore and does 50 TV games a year.

"I'm really having more fun than I've ever had," Robinson said.

Jurgensen echoes the sentiment. Both are spending much more time with their families, and enjoying it.

But Robinson admits, " I don't think anythinch could give me a big a thrill as playing. I wish I had 20 more years to play every day."