A reel in the history of the New York Yankees has been run. It is unlikely now that it can be rewound.

For the past three seasons, the Yanks grew and changed each year. Each chapter in their story elaborated some recurrent theme. Each season revealed new levels of character in their performers.

From freshly restored league champs in 1976, led by Billy Martin, they suddenly became wealthy and widely hated world hegemonists in '77, symbolized by Reggie Jackson.

Last season the pinstripers' metamorphosis was complete. Injured but respected, they became stubborn underdogs worthy of an affectionate place in athletic folklore.

The Comeback Yanks of '78 were suddenly palatable for three reasons; Billy Martin was fired, owner George Steinbrenner buttoned his lip and slugger Jackson tried to blend with his teammates, at last.

Now the Yankees, racked by injuries, nine games behind in the lost column, old at key positions and desperately impatient in the front office, they tried to recycle their past.

In baseball, it seldom works that way. You move ahead, never backward. For a Yankee team that is as deeply troubled now as it ever was in '78, the rehiring of Martin has been a breath of stale air - exactly what the team did not need.

Some here in this decadent Apple think that S&M stands for sado-masochism. Yankee fans knows it stand for baseball's perverse duo: Steinbrenner and Martin.

That tandem is back: Steinbrenner who is so adept at dealing out lashes to his underlings, and Martin with his tight-lipped, bull-headed knack for constantly leading himself into self-destructive impasses.

From Steinbrenner's viewpoint, rehiring Martin was both expedient and necessary. Bob Lemon, headed for retirement and admittedly a bit disinterested in games since the death of a son last winter, was not the best manager for a critically injured team that needed a fire lit under it.

Fireband Martin hardly could make the team play more drably. As for loyalty to Lemon for services rendered, no Yankee employe is naive enough to expect such consideration.

If Martin lights a fire under the Yanks, then, from Steinbrenner's vantage point, well and good. If Martin fizzles, then only one season has been damaged, not 1980 as well. In the bargain, Steinbrenner's disingenuous "promise" to rehire Martin has been kept.

As a bonus, Martin means money. The Yanks' huge payroll demands either victory or controversy: something to fill seats. Steinbrenner knows how to orchestrate a season, change a plot line, make an old show play like new.

It was no accident that Steinbrenner insisted that Martin coach at third base, his first several games, then leaked the news. Who pays to see a manager stay in the dugout? Yankee officials estimate that Martin paid off his $100,000-plus contract with the 15,000 extra fans who came to his homecoming game.

Despite all these Machiavellian advantages, the time hardly seems right for Martin's return, even if he comes back as fresh and sharp-witted as he was in '76 rather than paranoid and sometimes potted, as the Yanks said he was when they fired him in '78.

It is true that under Martin's jockeying in '76 the club developed a champion's style built on solid starting pitching, overpowering relief work, marvelous infield defense and contact-hitting laced with lefty power.

However, once Martin established that tactical overview, and manager - especially one more tactful - could have employed it just as well, or better.

The Yankees are well aware that they reached their highest achievement, their '78 comback, without Martin. Many a Yankee nodded his head in their victorious World Series locker room and admitted, "We never could have done it with Billy.

The New Yorkers reached full baseball maturity when they were left alone under Lemon's stewardship to play as a group of committed and veteran adults, rather than to bicker like children under Martin's despotism.

The Martin era, full of acrimony and tension, is part of Yankee history, not the Yankee future. And many a player knows it. When a team has won 53 of its last 74 games under incredible pressure, as the Yanks did in '78 without ever hearing a managerial yell, how is it likely to react to Martin's recurrent screams?

Unfortunately for the Yanks, their problems run deeper than issues of personality and morale. They also have problems with torn tendons and ripped muscles, back spasms and old age.

The Bronx Bombers of '78 were injured, to be sure. But their mainspring of pitching was never broken because Ron Guidry (25-3) and Goose Gossage (27 saves) never faltered.

Even if one Damaso Garcia had to play second base, the Yankees never seemed to lose the sense that they were whole. A bond of foxhole fellowship was formed among the team's three disparate leaders: the grouchy, combative Thurman Munson, the sardonic, graceful Graig Nettles and the theatrical, clutch Reggie Jackson.

This season, a great deal is different. When the Yankees look at themselves, they see a great many of the proper and long proven causes of defeat.

The Yankees still have their splendid infield defense, their consistent hit-and-run style hitters and a sufficiency of southpaw power, even if Jackson may be out with a leg injury for several more days.

But their most fundamental under-pinning, exceptional relief pitching, has been ripped away. And its supporting strength, deep starting pitching, has been eroding for two years.

All the Yankee's problems, and all their solutions, are to be found on the mound.

Contrary to myth, the Yankees are not one of baseball's best slugging, or even best scoring, teams. What they are best at is pecking away for three to six runs day after day.

That offensive consistency, especially in the clutch, plus the golden gloves of Nettles and Willie Randolph, was the delight of every pitcher - those creatures who ask of life only four runs every game and never an error.

Now, Sparky Lyle has been traded because of Steinbrenner's pique - a move as dumb as his free-agent grabs were bright. Gossage will be out an other three weeks. More to the point, no one knows if Gossage will be effective again this year.

"I try to throw every pitch as hard as I can somewhere over the plate," he has said. Such a man needs his health - and all the tendons in his pitching hand, especially those in the thumb that holds the ball.

The list of damaged goods on the Yankee staff sounds like a going-out-of-business sale. Catfish Hunter (0-5, 5.91 earned run average) and Luis Tiant (4.76) must prove for the umpteenth tie that they have not, finally, reached the scrap heap. Don Gullett may not pitch at all this year. Jim Kaat is old and next to useless.

Both Ed Figueroa (3-6, 4.57) and Jim Beattie (4.74) have been nondescript, especially forbiding in Figueroa's case since he has not been able to pitch well for Martin since he learned in the '77 post season that Billy the Kid considered him a liability in a pressure game.

Last year, Figueroa was 7-7 under Martin, 13-2 for Lemon.

Even Guidry seems a trifle bitter. When he volunteered for the bullpen in May, wise heads told him, "Just wait. Some part of you will break before the All-Star break."

Sure enough, last week Guidry left the park on a stretcher with back spasms that terrified him.

"All I know," Guidry said Tuesday, "is that I'm not coming back until I say I'm coming back and it's going to be very slow. I don't want to end up missing two or three months . . . or more." Like a career. So much for volunteers.

Nonetheless, what a collection of names these Yankees have - what a locker room. These are the names of the decade - the best of the best.

Can the men in pinstripes turn back the clock once more? Or as the decade fades, will they fade with it?