Trim and hard as a 53-year-old man can be and dressed in black from head to toe, Gene Mauch, with his steel-gray hair and his steel-blue eyes, looks like a figure from Zane Gray-- the Rancho Mirage Kid in middle age.

Then he puts on his cheerful red plaid sports coat and, suddenly, Mauch is transformed from a hawk-eyed man of menace to the most dapper and aggreable grandfather in Minnesota.

Being around Gene Mauch, the dean of baseball managers, the skipper of the far-far-over-their-heads Twins, is like being around a pearl-handled switchblade knife.

The exterior is elegant and expensive-- one of its kind and classy. But a sharpness, like the point of a knife, is always glinting in Mauch's eyes. His famous destroy-everything-in-sight temper is part of it. The larger force, however, is his blade edge of mental sharpness.

To Mauch, baseball is chess with human pieces-- but at high speed. A half-hour after a game, his metabolism still is racing, his mind still at 1,000 rpm. He sucks cigarettes voraciously, his eyelids dance, he cannot stay still.

In chess, there are masters, like Paul Morphy at the turn of this century, who, although of the first rank, showed only their most brilliant efforts when they were desperately outmanned. Playing a "handicap game" without their queen, or saving a supposedly "lost" tactical position was their forte, their way into the chess anthologies.

Mauch is the baseball equivalent-- a stern strategic purist, in love with the subtleties of his game who might rather take a last place team and finish fourth than win the pennant in a breeze with the '27 Yankees.

Of course, Mauch would howl at such a characterization. But look at his 20-year record. Look at this year's pennant-contending Minnesota Twins, a team that is a microcosm of Mauch's whole career.

Like the black clothes and bright jacket, like the pearl inlay and the deadly blade, Mauch's mysterious paradoxes cannot be touched by the standard cliches applied to managers. There has never, in a century, been a case like Mauch's where it is impossible to decide if a man is the best manager of his era or one of the poorer.

Only seven managers in history have bossed more games than Mauch's 3,075. And only 10 have won more games. This year his victory total has passed Uncle Wilbert Robinson, Jimmy Dykes, Miller Huggins and Senor Al Lopez.

The current Twins, decimated by the free-agent losses of Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock, plus the forced trade of Rod Carew, seemed destined for the pits this year. Instead, they enter September in third place in the AL West-- only two games out of first place.

Yet, like all Mauch's achievements, that record is ambiguous in the extreme. Mauch is sardonically called "the best manager who never won a pennant." But it is far more dramatic than that. In 20 full seasons, he has never finished first, finished second once, finished third once and ended up fourth or lower 18 times.

His career winning percentage is a drab .474. Even this season's darling Twins are something of an optical illusion. Minnesota has the 15th-best record in baseball and the eighth best in the American League. In other words, they are a second-division team.

But because California and Kansas City have sputtered all year, the Twins are a "pennant contender" and Mauch, once more, is considered one of baseball's premiere geniuses.

The rationale for Mauch's perplexing record is simple, and perhaps both correct and irrefutable: He has always had mediocre-to-bad teams and has invariably brought them home ahead of predictions.

In a profession of job-hopping, tobacco-chewing, ungrammatical men whose dignity is ground down continually, Mauch seems like an out-of-place prince.

When it comes to elegance, personal presence, eloquence and a forbiddingly academic approach to inside baseball, Mauch makes redoubtable figures like Earl Weaver, Billy Martin and Whitey Herzog seem like chaps who have been left a bit behind when life's more noble virtues were distributed.

They win the pennants. Mauch wears his invisible crown.

When asked how his team will fare in September, Mauch answers as no other baseball manager would dream: "We have a special chemistry, but it has not been tested. You can be sure of one thing. The litmus paper will be dipped. No one knows yet which color it will turn."

That same mind lives the game-- in its technical aspect-- at a level which has probably never been reached before. Mauch has pitch-by-pitch records, box scores and personal notes on every game he has managed since 1961.

They are not kept in an attic. "Oh, I look back at those notebooks all the time," he said, "especially in the winter. If it rains and you can't play golf or you wake up at 4 a.m. and can't sleep. It's fun remembering and reliving."

However, those copious notes are hardly, "Whoopee, we won!"

Mauch's sheet for a June 5th game by pitcher Paul Hartzell against Baltimore reads, "As good as he can do it-- strike, strike, strike. Worked inside enuff to help him away. Breaking ball needs a little more tilt. Was in hurry to get game over in ninth. Just strikes-- no particular location. All fast balls and up. Think down when edge goes from velocity."

The moments Mauch lives for are comprehended by very few. On Friday night, Mauch fandangled the Orioles on a play that brought Mauch and Weaver to the absolute edge of tactical possibilities.

With the game on the line, the Twins ahead, 3-1, the Orioles tried an unconventional double steal on a 3-1 pitch with one out. Suffice it to say that the Birds consider the play an almost unheard-of sneak attack, but one with sound theoretical roots.

Mauch not only anticipated the play but moved two infielders with hand signals so that the Baltimore runner at second would have to take a shorter lead. The lead stealer was caught on a swing and miss, the O's rally died instantly and the Twins won.

That is Mauch at his best.

"Mauch is the best of all the strategists," said Baltimore captain Mark Belanger. "But that may not be the most important part of managing. Players are what is important, not managers. Weaver understands that.

"Mauch is a tactician, but Earl is a team builder.

"Most managers make suggestions on personnel to the general manager and then they get ignored or kicked in the face," said Belanger. "Very few, if any, managers can get away with the stuff Earl pulls.

"Strictly speaking, Mauch may be the best manager in baseball because he takes the players he's given and does the most that can possibly be done with them," Belanger said. "It's the club's job to provide the players and in Philadelphia, Montreal and Minnesota, Gene hasn't had too many good ones.

"What makes Earl special is judging talent and then kicking people in the shins until he gets it."

Even within the realm of tactics Mauch is a mystery.

"He plays for one run at a time more than any manager," said a current big-league manager who saw Mauch in the National League. "The top teams play for two or three runs on one swing-- with the homer. Since two runs will always beat one run, that's why Gene Mauch always finishes fourth. He's an overmanager."

On the other hand, when did Mauch ever have a slugger? His nephew Roy Smalley leads the Twins with 22 homers-- more than the next two Twins combined.

In the end, Mauch is a deliciously debatable matter of taste. To those romantics who like undergunned generals with exotic battle plans, Mauch has made a career of being Robert E. Lee with his supply lines cut.

he charm of the Twins, and the powerful appeal of Mauch, is their love of that nuance which is central to baseball. For those who find a cannonade of home runs slightly unimaginative, the Minnesotans are a splendid juggling act on a high wire.

If this is to be the season when Mauch finally wins something more tangible than praise, he will have done it his way-- with starting pitchers named Goltz, Zahn and Erickson and a pesty .285-hitting team with .300-batters named Adams, Landreaux and Wilfong.

If the Twins should survive in baseball's weakest division, there is no doubt where the preponderance of credit will rest. Who is to say that, after 36 years in baseball, Mauch doesn't have a right to play it that way.