Bob Lemon insists the story is true, although the wit he serves reporters tends to be as sneaky as the pitches he once served American League hitters. For helping the Chicago White Sox win 90 games, Lemon was named manager of the year last season.

"And I didn't get the award until I'd been hired this season," he said.

For Lemon, this has been a year like no other manager in baseball ever experienced. He was fired June 30, for the lack of flair and self-esteen that were so useful in the Yankees' remarkable surge which carried them to another pennant.

Lemon had been fired the afternoon of June 30. That night, before the White Sox layed the Twins in Minnesota, Lemon talked about the clubhouse and thanked each player for his help.

It was like he was giving us a pep talk," said Don Kessinger.

Lemon describes his period of unemployment, until July 25, as "between pictures." His face usually is not long without the hint of a smile and his face, with one of the most prominent noses in sport, reflects a long and fond relationship with Jim Beam and I. W. Harper.

"How long does it take me to get over a game?" he was saying after Thurman Munson's two-run homer in the eight had given the Yanks a 6-5 victory over the Royals Friday night and a 2-1 lead in the AL playoffs. "Oh, I'd say I'm over it by the second drink."

It is not that simple. He projects the image of calm no matter how high the emotional waves around him - and the emotional waves in the Yankee clubhouse would list a battleship. When that is mentioned, Lemon points to the "antacid medication" on his desk.

The Yanks were 10 1/2 games behind the Red Sox when Billy Martin was fired and Lemon hired. They have won 49 of 69 games since, although Lemon correctly points out the team was getting healthy once again when he took over.

Astonishingly, the manager's office in Yankee Stadium is almost exactly the same with Lemon in residence as it was during Martin's stormy reign. There are the same pictures and signs, including the one so Martin-like that still hangs high over Lemon's right shoulder.

"Company rules," the sign screams. "Rule No. 1: The boss is always right. Rule No. 2: If the boss is wrong, see rule No. 1." Perhaps this is merely economy at work, saving Martin's decor for his alleged return as manager in 1980.

Ironically, Lemon was partially involved in one of the first George Steinbrenner-Martin feuds. That was in 1976, when Lemon was Martin's pitching coach and the fuss was over none other than Ron Guidry.

Guidry is the best pitcher in baseball now, but then he was just another hard-throwing left-hander with an uncertain future. That was Martin's view at the time. Witnesses recall Martin walking by Guidry now and then saying, "Can't you get anybody out?"

But Lemon realized Guidry's potential, in fact pushed to use him more frequently, and now he has benefited from the best left-handed arm since Koufax.

Less than an hour after Friday's victory, Steinbrenner burst into Lemon's office and said: "You sure are lucky. You got lucky the day you met Al Rosen (team president) and (me)."

Indeed, one gets the feeling that Martin's departure was much more significant than Lemon's arrival, that Kermit the frog or somebody from the right field bleachers might have had nearly the same impact.

"You'd get so worn down by all the turmoil (under Martin)," said Lou Piniella. "You'd be so physically tired - and you hadn't been playing. Now you can get all your physical and emotional energies directed toward the game."

Apparently, a Lemon-for-Martin managerial swap had been suggested to White Sox owner Bill Veeck earlier in the season. So when Lemon was fired, he was the obvious choice to replace Martin. Whether the 58-year-old Lemon moves to the front office or not in 1980, his success surely will work toward Martin being denied the chance to manage here again.

"This park gives me a special feeling," Lemon said. "I always got that feeling when I was pitching (for the Indians) here. I'd see those plaques in center field, I'd see Joe DiMaggio take his place in center field and I'd say: 'What am I doing here?'

"I always got tingle when I came here."

Of his pits-to-the-penthouse year, Lemon says: "It's been hard to believe. Funny, sort of. But that's baseball. You can get out of a job pretty quick in his game."

Lemon-managed the Royals from early season 1970 through most of 1972. He was astounded - bitterly so - that Royal owner Ewing Kauffman, who hired and fired him, approached him a few years later in Florida and introduced himself, as though they had never met.

As Lemon was talking, at least three awards to Martin "for outstanding achievement" were piled on a nearby couch. Lemon was reminded of the possibility of being named manager of the year in consecutive seasons for two different teams.

He laughed. "I don't know if I want any of those awards," he said. "I might be out of a job again." Then he recalled his first trip to Yankee Stadium this season, as White Sox manager.

"I got hit on the ear by a Reggie bar."