Two distinguished 50-year-old men with graying hair and flat stomachs met at home plate here earlier this week, their teams separated by a half-game in the National League East pennant race.

Dick Williams and Chuck Tanner did not snarl or exchange steely stares, though both have always been viewed with a respect just shy of fear in major league dugouts.

The pair broke into laughter, shook hands and pounded each other on the back like long-lost brothers.

"Chuck told me our horse came in third," said Williams, the manager of the Montreal Expos who are pursuing Tanner's Pittsburgh Pirates hotly.

"We knew we wouldn't see each other again until after the season, unless we have a playoff. Se we wanted to wish each other luck -- well, sort of.

"An our horse did run third."

Williams and Tanner are similar in one respect -- they seldom finish out of the money and they hate it fiercely when they do.

And their teams are remarkably similar in style -- so much so that both managers talk of the clubs as mirror images.

Neither has a true star pitcher -- the only hurler on either team that figures to win 15 games is Montreal's Bill Lee. Yet both clubs are seven-deep in starting pitchers -- a total as unusually high as the need for them has been unusually great.

Both Pittsburgh and Montreal have homer totals in the 140s, thanks to five basic power bats. Yet each has just one 30-homer man -- the Expos' Larry Parrish (30) and the Bucs' Willie Stargell (31).

If the Priates have more speed (182 steals to 115), and 50 more runs scored, the Expos have a better ERA (3.41 to 3.13).

Nevertheless, the basic difference between Williams and Tanner are far greater than the similarities, just as, beneath the statistics, the Expos and Pirates bear little resemblance to each other.

Williams, like Minnesota's Gene Mauch, has always been a crisply stylish, ferociously intelligent student of the game. Flinty and forbidding at the core, but charming and eloquent when he chooses, Williams suffers fools badly and is found of order.

He can appreciate and nurture an eccentric like Lee because the southpaw is a fanatical self-disciplinarian, and because Williams respects brains and strong opinions.

"It's strage who you find yourself on the same wavelength with," said Williams, recalling the days when he and Jimmy Piersall hooked up to win over $20,000 on a quick-think TV show.

"And when you admit that you're on the same wavelength with Piersall, that's something."

By contrast, the tall, handsome Tanner, who once was considered one of the strongest men in baseball, is the original cheerful gladhander. While Williams disdains small talk and couldn't care less if he is incidentally rude, Tanner is compulsively friendly, pressing the flesh, making eye contact.

If Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda always seems in danger of being the ultimate Dale Carnegie confection, Tanner is seldom accused of not being genuine. Somehow he will manage to get his true feeling across -- cutting underneath the manners.

To a media man who has criticized him, he may show all 32 friendly teeth, then make every knuckle ache with a handshake to remember.

While Williams manages with intellect and distance, Tanner leads with emotion and closeness.

As is almost inevitable with a man who needs popularity, a respect very close to affection, in order to prosper, Tanner's Pirates are called "Chuck's Bucs." The team is a family, and, as such, is prone to moods of elation or depression which Tanner must join in, share and ride out, rather than counteract.

The Expos, also predictably, have no Williams-like nickname. Montreal is not a chummy, buddy-buddy team. Tanner, for instance, never could bench Stargell for a crucial game unless the player requested it, since it would be an insult within the family. Williams felt free to bench beloved Tony Perez -- the Expos' Stargell -- before Wednesday's showdown without any need for an explanation.

The results of these two approaches are as mixed as we might wish. In strict game strategy, Williams has been a clear winner -- so much so that even in Pittsburgh cynics say that, in such a close race, Williams will find a way to steal it.

In Montreal's one victory here this week, Williams stepped on toes and won while Tanner soft-pedaled and lost.

With Perez available, Williams instead pinch-hit a lefty, John Tamargo, while, at the same time, pinch-running Ted Raines for Parrish. If Perez and Parrish had ruffled pride, who cared when Tamargo doubled and Raines slid home to tie the game on a play on which Parrish could not have scored.

Because of such plays, Williams is called the genius, and Tanner the good-guy cheerleader.

No one can measure those intangibles which Tanner helps nurture. On the two nights following Williams' brilliance at tactics, Tanner's Bucs went out and licked the hide off the Expos, 10-4 and 10-1.

In head-to-head meetings, Tanner has let his club raise itself sky-high on adrenalin, while Williams has down-played, warning his team not to peak, not to invest too much in any one game.

The perhaps not-so-mysterious result is that Pittsburgh has won 11 of 18 meetings with Montreal this year, including nine of the last 11. Yet, as soon as Montreal is out of the Pirates' sight, the Bucs seem to relax, the Expos make up the ground in other towns, and the final result is a near dead heat.

It constantly is pointed out that Williams has finished first four times, and never second, while Tanner has finished second four times, and never first.

That holds no water now. These two thoroughbreds have both come to the wire -- necks stretched, veins bulging.

All that remains is the photo finish.