Perhaps the quickest way to get to know the leading hitter in major league baseball is to ask Roy Smalley what annoys a man battling .384.

"It's hard to concentrate on reading Plato in the afternoon if you're playing New York in Yankee Stadium that night," the Minnesota Twins' switch-hitting shortstop says with a grin.

Do we have your attention, class?

For Christmas, Smalley's wife gave him a 100-volume series of classics in literature. She knew what he wanted. These days, Smalley is lugging "Moby Dick" around with him, digesting the troubled souls on Herman Melville's Pequod.

"Baseball can be just a giant waste of time," says Smalley, 26, sounding heretical since his father, Roy Sr., played short for several big league teams and his uncle, Gene Mauch, manages the Twins.

"In 15 seasons, you can throw away seven or eight years of your life with idle time that you use poorly. The quality of your time just turns to dirt," continues Smalley, a philosophy major at Southern California.

On the outside, Smalley is easygoing, slim, almost boyish - the handsome, lithesome lad at play. Underneath, he has such an appetite for life that he can hardly bear to waste an instant.

Unlike so many athletes, he is not a self-improvement addict, a joyless grind.

"I just think that man's mental, physical and emotional capabilities are incredible," he says with an expression as impish as his words are serious. "I want to push myself to my limits."

At the moment, though people are just coming to realize it, Smalley has pushed those limits to the point where he is, almost indisputably, the best shortstop in the American League - and an equal of Dave Concepcion and Larry Bowa of the National League.

That, however, does not prevent Smalley from being a distant third in the preposterous All-Star balloting by fans that was released today. How many are aware that Smalley, not battling champ Rod Carew, was the Twins' MVP last year? Or that he led the AL for the second straight year in total chances? Or that no shortstop in the big leagues equaled his 19 homers?

"From the time I was 10 years old, I knew baseball was something i had to be good at," Smalley relates. "I was obsessed with it. Now it wasn't that I was sure that I would be good, just that I felt I had to be. I demanded it of myself.

"That's not my father's doing. That's just me. I'm goal-oriented. But I had to learn that we all have doubts, that we all fail. I just had to get myself under control,

"That was particularly hard because I really learned the game in the majors, not the minors."

Just a year and a half out of USC, Smalley was a Texas Ranger in 1975.

"All that growing up around major league clubhouses can only help you so much," he says. "Learning to know yourself between the white lines is an experience that's all yours.

"When you contract yourself to play, when you sign that paper, you know the game will thrill you to death and make you sick to your stomach . . . Dealing with those emotional peaks and valleys is brutal. You find yourself living only for the game. There's a sense of real despair, especially when you're failing. You say, I'm not doing anything with my life."

Few players have been so low or so constantly booed as Smalley, surrounded for two full seasons by constant charges of nepotism as he floundered while Uncle Gene staunchly kept him in the lineup.

Slowly, painfully, Smalley used his modest skills, his firm will and his strong intelligence to subdue the mind game.

Slow for an infielder, much less a shortstop, Smalley studied hitters so exhaustively that no infielder in baseball has reached so many batted balls in the last two seasons.

At the plate, the process was far slower. "Hitting is something about which I have an idea -a conscious plan - that I find hard to express," says Smalley.

"Hitting is such a myriad of things. You learn it by osmosis. For instance, certain pitchers will have me in trouble, but I'll get a hit anyway and I'll think, 'Oh, I learned that from Rodney (Carew).' The great man would be proud of me.

"The main thing is, don't go up there just because it's your turn. Have an idea. Never waste a time at bat. But, on the other hand, remember how unimportant any one at-bat is. Those are two sides of a tough coin.

"I've gone from a defensive, choke-up hitter to an aggressive one who's not afraid to take a chance and pull the ball with authority," says Smalley, bringing 10 homers and 36 RBI here - astronomical totals for a shortstop.

"But like Carew says, you have to learn that you can't always hit the way you want to. Sometimes, you hit the way you have to.

"If it all sounds a little metaphysical, then maybe that's a good word for it. Hitting is a mighty mysterious art."

Now that Smalley has learned the alchemic knack of turning his lead bat of '77 (.231) into the potential silver bat of '79, he has gone from humpty to hero in the Twin Cities. But no Smalley or Mauch will ever forget the anguished years between.

"My wife went through absolute hell," Smalley tells you. "She says that nothing that happens now can touch her. She has the battle scars."

As always, Smalley found his father ready to help.

"When I was a boy, he'd bring me home books all the time. I'd underline the words I didn't know, and in the morning we'd look them up together," Smalley recalls. "He was always an example of determination.

"After he retired, he started a janitoral service (in Los Angeles). He started with a bucket and a mop and he built it until now he has 90 people working for him."

If Smalley Sr. could tell his sensitive son to "ignore the boos, I heard 'em, too," then his brother-in-law Mauch had an even more substantial piece of encouragement for his nephew.

Just 12 months ago, when Smalley was in the pits, Mauch told him, "I wouldn't trade you for any player in baseball. You're ready to turn the corner."

"That mean so much to me," Smalley says. "The man never lies."

Mauch is slow to pat himself on the back.

"If he had not been the sort of young man that he is, I would never allowed him to be on my team with the obvious charges of nepotism hanging over us . . . not if he was my son," said Mauch, the majors' senior skipper with 20 years of managing.

"Anybody can recognize a fast bat or great legs, but who can look in a man's head?" continues Mauch, who obviously thought he could look in his nephew's. "Roy's reached the point, like a Carew, where you just write his name in the lineup every day and say, 'Well, That's one less I have to worry about.'

"He may defer to one shortstop for range, or another for arm, or another for speed. But put everything together, and he defers to no shortstop in baseball."

Far more than mere baseball judgement was vindicated when Mauch's sister's son made good.

"Let's just say," says Mauch, "that I have a far greater desire to be happy than I do to be right. This makes me happy."

Smalley finds his growing fame a mixed blessing.

"They say the limelight is hot," he says. "It's burning already. I understand how the players and the media feed off each other, that all this money we're getting comes from enormous free publicity. Nevertheless . . . it gets wearing. Uou can exhaust yourself with interviews or you can act like jerk. I hate bad manners.

"I find myself wanting to talk about things other than baseball. It's like when you're on an airplane . . . the last thing you want to mention is that you're a ballplayer. It kills any chance for a conversation.

"Maybe I'm talking a lot of trash about wanting to be thought of as more than just an athlete. I sure have worked my butt off to get where I am. I'm not brilliant like my uncle . . . I'm what you might call a purposeful worker."

With that cheerful diligence, Roy Smalley, child of the big leagues, has made himself a budding philosopher of a hitter and whale of a shortstop. CAPTION: Picture 1, Roy Smalley, Twin Shortstop: "I want to push myself to my limits." By Joe Helberger - The Washington Post