Larry Bowa, the Phillie shortstop, has the metabolism of a humming-bird, the piercing cry of sassy jay and the frenetic look of sparrow among cats.

"I've always been the littlest guy, the one with the least talent," said Bowa, who was cut three times by his high school coach.

"I've learned that anyone can give 100 percent. For me, 100 percent means instant failure.

"I have to give 120 percent, and even then maybe 130 percent of me wouldn't be enough.

"I'll work any number of hours, play with any amount of pain I can bear. You can will pain away. My dad once told me, 'If you can walk and breathe, you can play. Anybody who looks like you is always going to have someone waiting to take their job',"

Bowa keeps nothing inside - humor and anger are his right -and left-hand companions. Without them, he would cease to function as an athlete.

These are the times when Bowa should finally be in the catbird seat. It has taken him 20 years, but he almost has mastered the game he calls "a constant chore . . . but never a job."

Skills that no man ever saw in Bowa, that Bowa himself barely suspected, have been polished diamond sharp.

"I've been driven by dissatisfaction with myself," he says. "Nothing I have done seems like enough to me. People said that if I hit .250, I would have a long and prosperous career.

"Nobody asked me for more, except me. I wasn't satisfied. When I lose my enthusiasm for improvement, it'll be time to put the glove on the spike and retire."

So, on afternoons when the temperature on the Philadelphia Astro Turf is 120 degrees. Bowa says, "I field extra grounders, take extra batting practice."

He has reached the point where, he says, "I don't dare look too hard at my statistics until the season is over. I'm almost in awe of them."

Bowa, a hitter so powerless that he had four home runs in his first seven seasons, has more hits (144) this season than Rod Carew.

Pete Rose says, "If I don't watch out, that damn Bowa is going to get the hit title away from me."

Although only Rose and Jim Rice have more hits than th .306 batting Bowa, the 159 pound scrapper clings to his role of underdog.

When he sees two-time former batting champ Bill Madlock, Bowa crows, "Watch out, I'm gaining on you," then breaks up laughing, telling Madlock, "Don't worry, Roliy Polly. You're bona fide. I'm just fakin' it."

Bowa is no fake at shortstop.Playing the game's most difficult position, he has a rather simple goal: a season with no errors.

The 32-year-old already holds the all-time fielding percentage record for shortstops in 1000 or more games, and the National League mark for fewest errors in a season (nine in 1972).

This season, his goal is Eddie Brinkman's major league record of seven errors in a season. After 115 games, Bowa has five errors, two on relay throws that accidentally hit runners and caromed into a dugout.

"The first ground ball of the season went right between my legs," Bowa says with a laugh. "I haven't missed one since."

Just for spice, Bowa steals 25 to 40 bases a season with near-80 percent efficiency.

Yet, Bowa is now playing in pain - double pain.

Under his uniform, Bowa wears a thick vest to protect a recently broken rib.

Five days ago, 230-pound Willie Stargill jumped into Bowa's path, reaching for a throw. A sane runner would have avoided the Pirate . . . and been out. Bowa plowed into Stargell nose first, broke a rib . . . and was out.

Baseball has many unwritten rules of common sense, like not running into Wilver Stargell. Or hitting sports-writers.

The night before encountering Stargell, Bowa had a confrontation with Ray (Buzz) Kelly Jr. of the Camden (N. J.) Courier - a columnist who had cited Bowa for "immature tantrums," "lack of class" and "a mouth as big as his talent."

Since Bowa calls huge Greg Luzinski "Fat Old Hog" and teases him in public, it surprised no one that Bowa called Kelly several off-color names. So Kelly retaliated in print, reporting that Bowa was the "anonymous" Phillie who suggested struggling pitchers Jim Lonborg and Jim Kaat might help the team most by "spending the rest of the summer at the shore."

A Phillie-vs-Scribe bout has simmered all summer. Philadelphia probably leads the majors in boo-birds, flip writers who walk the fine line between wit and sarcasm and surly players who hide in the trainer's room and tell their sorrows to their hair dryers.

In this tinder box situation it was perfect irony that Bowa, one of the most cooperative players, should become involved in a scene with Kelly, an easygoing writer who seldom incurs a ballplayer's disfavor.

"The press has taken some low blows at this team, and Kelly had taken one at me," said Bowa.

"We got in a screaming match and maybe I wanted to take a swing at him, but I never did.

"I couldn't. My feet were off the florr. Ron Reed (6-foot-6) picked me up, carried me to my locker and hung me up next to my wet socks."

That was the last funny thing Bowa remembers. "The guys (writers) in this town are trying to bury me," said Bowa. "I haven't talked before today because I hoped it would die down. I can't believe the way it won't go away."

Bowa's reputation is spreading. Los Angeles pitcher Don Sutton now greets writers by saying, "Please, don't punch me." New York Yankees Rich Gossage, furious at an umpire Sunday, screamed, "Where's Larry Bowa when you need him?"

When Bowa walks through his club-house, teammates refer to his rib protector as a bullet-proof vest.

The onus of going one-on-one with a 140-pound writer has squelched Bowa's bubbly wisecracks and his constant, nervous jabbering. It's been a real Bowa constrictor.

"We just wish it would die out," says Courier Post Sports Editor Bob Kenney. "We're sure Larry didn't make a premeditated attack. Bowa may fly off the handle, but he's not a plotter.

"Bowa's all ballplayer. If he planned a bank robbery, he'd probably get carried away in the heat of the moment and commit it in his Phillie uniform."