Technology, the center-field television camera to be specific, probably has caused the sign to be altered. But when Billy Martin used to want a batter battered, the catcher would point his thumb toward the sky and then flick it toward the intended victim.

"I think he held grudges, and at times felt like our pitchers weren't always protecting our hitters," said former pitcher Fred Holdsworth in describing Billy's martinet ways with the Tigers. "Lots of managers try to get their pitchers to retaliate, too, but Billy always seemed to make it clearer.

"There was a little sign. The catcher would flip his thumb toward the batter; the pitcher knew what he had to do. Everybody on the Tigers, everybody in the park, knew that (Lerrin) LaGrow was intentionally throwing at (Bert) Campaneris in that '72 playoff.

"Campy included."

As surely as the sun rises in the East, Martin ordered a balding Yankee rookie, Bob Krammeyer, to throw at the Indians' Cliff Johnson 10 days ago in Cleveland. Given the circumstances, a serious fan would have been startled if Martin had not given the "hit" sign.

Imagine Martin at the time. In his mind, Johnson had cost the Yanks a serious chance at the American League East title with the clubhouse scuffle that took star reliever Goose Gossage out of the lineup for so long. He already had been banished to Cleveland for it.

But Johnson also had knocked two home runs and the Indians were ahead, 10-0, in the fourth inning of a game they would win by 16-3. Smaller men than the 227 pound Johnson have been bruised for less. In many situations, they go up to hit expecting to be hit.

The New York Times, in a followup to its anatomy of a mean spirited pitch, said: "Members of the team close to Kammeyer and Bruce Robinson, who was the catcher in that game, authoritatively confirmed that Martin had ordered the brushback and that, after the catcher had relayed Martin's wishes to the pitcher, Kammeyer had intentionally thrown to hit Johnson."

If American League President Lee MacPhail gets any of those Yankee witnesses to authoritatively confirm that on the record, it will be the confes-sion of the year. Martin publicly denies it and the pitcher and catcher have been mum.

To deal out the harsh punishment the incident seems to demand, MacPhail probably will be forced to mentally drift into that uncertain area known as intent. With no one but Indian-oriented witnesses likely to counter Martin, it will be difficult to prove anything beyond the sort of action baseball not only has condoned but also celebrated for decades.

Even the reporter on the original story, Gay Talese, was confused. He used the terms "brushback" and "knockdown" as though they were interchangeable. In fact, they are vastly different.

Brushback is a totally acceptable part of baseball, a reasonable and effective way for pitchers to keep a hitter from becoming too confident. Knockdown implies a vicious intent; it is the baseball equivalent of attempted murder and should be treated as such.

In his original story, Talese reported that a Cleveland-area high school student serving as Yankee bat boy overheard Martin, "in a clear voice," wishing Johnson were "knocked down." Adding to the intrigue, Martin gave Kammeyer five $20 bills.

That encouraged visions of bounty, that $100 is the going rate for a pound of baseball flesh. And reports of the pitch that hit Johnson called it "a fast ball . . . aimed high at his body and hit him on the left arm, which he had suddenly lifted to protect his face."

Martin said the $100 was intended for Kammeyer and the two other Yankee pitchers shelled that night to "get drunk and forget about today, and come back strong tomorrow."

Only the extremely naive believe there are not bounties in sport, that violence beyond the rules that define rugged play is not encouraged. George Allen sometimes encouraged a fight during games to get his players properly motivated.

The owner of a pro basketball team and the arena in which it played once was disturbed that a game was becoming too one-sided too early, that fans who ought to be staying and buying his beer and trinkets were leaving too early.

So he called his standout guard, who is white, to the sideline during a timeout and promised him an expensive pair of shoes if he would "go out and punch the first black guy you see" on the other team.

The guard did, a memorable fight followed and fans, hearing about it, flocked back inside the arena and remained, drinking heartily, to the end.

Anyone who knows Martin and his history strongly senses Kammeyer's pitch at Johnson was not a brushback accidentally out of control. But of all the scraps during his infamous baseball life, this one might be the easiest from which to escape. At the time, the home-plate umpire saw a high fast ball, but he did not see malice aforethought.

Players have their own sense of justice in such matters, when the letter of the law allows those who apparently have broken the spirit of the law to go unpunished. But Martin does not have to bat these days.