In the middle of the night, slowly and sorely, Willie Stargell and Bill Lee put on their vastly different clothes and walked in opposite directions out of Olympic Stadium and into the chill Canadian air.

This is the unseen pennant race -- baseball's midnight hour.

"I've got 3 a.m. shadow," said Stargell, feeling his beard stubble. "You kids sure know how to keep us old folks up late," said the 38-year-old first baseman to his Pittsburg Pirate teammates. "Pops here is supposed to have taken his Geritol and gone to bed hours ago."

At 1:41 a.m. today, Stargell crushed a 430-foot, 11th inning home run that beat the Montreal Expos, 5-3, in a pennant-race marathon that had 3 hours 4 minutes of baseball and 3 hours 3 minutes of rain delays.

"Now I've got to gear down," said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Stargell, wearing a black stetson with feathers, hand-tooled Western boots and black-and-white striped shirt with snow-white cowhide vest.

"I've been going through this every September for years. There's nothin' in this world like a pennant race. You wind up and wind up, then you have to wind down fast so there'll be something left of you when it's time to wind back up again."

Stargell knew how quickly his heroics would be forgotten. Those 15,000 Montrealers -- out of a crowd of 56,976 -- who stayed in their seats until nearly 2 a.m., long after the last subway had stopped running, thought they might have seen a death blow to the Expos.

After all, the Bucs, 1 percentage point behind when they came to town, had left two nights later with a two-game lead.

"In just a few hours," said Stargell, "both these teams are going to be in another city -- both of 'em playing damn doubleheaders.

"In less than a day, we could be back in second place. You can't ever stop pushing. This is a game of survival. We played 19 innings in San Diego last month and didn't leave the park until 4 a.m. I played all 19.

"I'm not crying. I asked to be a ball-player. I have to like it. But that doesn't mean this body ain't tired."

With that, Stargell, fresh from the 458th home run of a career that might put him in the Hall of Fame, opened his traveling satchel and dropped in his most essential piece of game equipment -- a corset for his aching back.

As Stargell exited in gunfighter chic, Bill (Spaceman) Lee was holding court in a Jackson Browne T-shirt, a McGill Redmen football cap, a tweed sports coat and jeans.

If Stargell was the hero of an instant, his night's production condensed into a millisecond when he assaulted a hanging Dale Murray fork-ball, then Lee had been the evening's protagonist for nearly six hours.

Bushwacked by seeing-eye ground balls and a pair of Expo errors in a three-run Pirate first inning, Lee allowed only three singles to the last 23 Bucs he faced.

At bat, Lee twice squared to bunt, then twice swung away -- doubling over first base and singling over third.

In the three-hour delay, he rode a stationary bicycle, stretched, and even ran foul-line-to-foul-line wind sprints in the drizzle to stay loose. But he hadn't been enough, one man against 25.

Now, in the middle of the night, one tiny spark set Lee off -- Dave Parker's crack that Lee had thrown him a spit-ball.

"Yeah, I'm glad he thinks that," snapped Lee, the flower child who conceals a Gashouse heart.

"Tell Parker he shouldn't think so much. It hurts his club."

Then Lee's voice rose, achieving a touch of Churchillian dignity as all the silent Expos turned their heads to hear him.

"Tell Parker we'll be back," said Lee, at home with a minority viewpoint, ignoring Montreal's impending 13-games in nine days road trip into the baseball twilight zone of jet lag and sore arms.

"I guarantee it. Tell him we're going to kick their butts in Pittsburgh next week."

"Space, Space, you tell 'em," preached Expo Ellis Valentine. "Without you we wouldn't even be where we are. Nobody's dead here."

The silence was broken. Soon, Valentine had found just the proper sad, driving blues tape to put on the deck. The bus waited outside, and then the plane to New York. Suddenly, back-to-back doubleheaders with the Mets seemed an opportunity, not a curse. At least for the moment.

In September, it is the Stargells and Lees -- the men who have been through the fires and proved their mettle -- who do the leading, not the managers.

Skippers can cheer and curse. Pittsbugh's Chuck Tanner can even smirk a bit that by getting umpire Andy Olsen to frisk Dale Murray for grease from hat to belt to armpits, he upset the Expo pitcher so much that a single and Stargell's homer were the immediate result. But managers know, in the last analysis, where the game lies, and they are bound umbilically to their chosen leaders.

"Nothing Stargell does will ever surprise me," said Tanner.

"I've had Lee since he was a baby," said the Expos' Dick Williams, who managed Boston in Lee's rookie year of 1967.

"There's not a better competitor on my club . . . he's beautiful. He's all right. We need him.

"He has his own thoughts, his own opinions, but he's no Spaceman. He puts a lot of people on. He's good copy. But he's got guts now when it counts. He's a winner. Look at the record -- a .590 percentage for a lefty pitching his whole career in Fenway Park.

"He got hit by a taxicab this spring jogging to the park. He missed only one start. All he said was, 'I knew Canadians were bad drivers, but I didn't know they'd come up over the curb to get you.'

"Our chairman of the board saw Bill running down by the waterfront one day and he came in and asked me, 'Dick, do you think Lee could get hit by a boat?'"

This is the month when the cream rises, when the old men of the baseball wars show kids how. Whether the showdown is Pittsburgh-Montreal, Kansas City-California or Cincinnati-Houston, every team knows which few hearty souls it must rely on.

You can be sure that Pops won't forget his corset and that Space will keep a sharp lookout for boats.