Each season the New York Yankees undergo an almost complete personality change.

Traditionally, baseball teams are like friends we grow to know over the course of years -- watching them change gradually and feeling our attachment to them grow. It is a natural and genuine process.

The Yankees are a new and disturbing development: a team with a desperate desire to grab the public by the lapels and scream, "I'm still here; don't forget me!"

If a fan doesn't like the Bronx stars, or their manager, or their style of play, just wait a few months. Not only will the Yanks change, but they will tie themselves in knots like a Hindu fakir.

The one Yankee constant is peripathetic owner George Steinbrenner, with his compulsion to keep his team, at whatever cost, in the Big Apple's fickle eye. Steinbrenner resembles a manic network TV executive who cancels situation comedies, changes celebrity billings, constantly tries to guess the public mood and, when in doubt, writes a check for a couple of million bucks.

By temperament, baseball is not accustomed to evaluating such a team or knowing how to feel about it.

And once again this spring, the Yanks are in almost total turmoil. They have a new manager, general manager, catcher, center fielder, first baseman, left-handed starting pitcher, left-handed reliever and designated hitter.

They've probably got a new batboy, too, but nobody's had time to notice.

For a man accused of replacing baseball judgment with scattergun acquisitiveness, Steinbrenner certainly spotted a sick club when he had one on his hands.

The 1979 Yankees fell into fourth place in June and stayed there, unmoving, for their last 100 games. When Baltimore clinched, New York was 18-1/2 games behind and comatose. The two-time defending world champion had become a slow, old team with no righthanded power and little offense of any kind.

After stealing 163 bases in '76, the Yanks stole 63 last year (next to last in the AL). They were 10th in batting and runs scored. They were losers on the road (38-41) and against southpaws (34-37).

Weighed down by a number of long-term free-agent contracts, the Yanks did the only thing possible for a club that had just set an alltime team attendance record (you don't rebuild when your're drawing 2,537,765). Faced with red ink if the public perceived them as a fading club, the Yanks traded the aging names whose reputations exceeded their remaining ability -- Mickey Rivers and Chris Chambliss.

They spent wildly in the free-agent market, paying $3 million for old Rudy May and Bob Watson, prompting one AL general manager to say, "Blatant overbidding . . . twice their value."

Finally, they mortgaged a bit of the future by trading quality youth in a four-for-one deal to get an established regular (Ruppert Jones) from a talent-poor expansion team.

When the dust settled, the Yankees still weren't a comprehensible team -- one built with a discernible strategy. But they were, at least, a contender without a conspicuous weakness. Money and desperation had conbined to caulk every visible leak.

Rick Cerone is a replacement, of sorts, for Thurman Munson. Watson forms half of a nice platoon at first with Jim Spencer (23 homers in 295 at-bats). Jones brings 21 homers, 33 steals and durability to center field. And Eric Soderhold might be construed, by an optimist, as a right-handed designated hitter.

Amid all this bluster, the Yankees' most important -- and probably best -- changes have come at the top, where Dick Howser and Gene Michael are the new skipper and GM.

"Dick and Stick" the Yanks call this popular pair of 42-year-old former utility infielders who were the third-and first-base coaches on the '78 world champions.

They are young and honest. They are a breath of fresh air after the atmosphere of venality bordering on corruption that hung about certain of their predecessors.

If this latest collection of high-priced talent is to coalesce into a true team, it will be Michael who puts the last personnel pieces in place and Howser who does the soldering.

Howser is the spiritual doctor who must take this remnant of a champion, juryrigged for one more run at a pennant, and make it breathe and fight.

Few folks seem less suited to the masochistic job of running the Bronx Bank than this 5-foot-8 pepperpot who is intense, smart, intuitive and neatly handsome in person, but photographs like a mouse. Oh well. Better than a rat.

After 21 years in baseball, 10 as an inconspicuous Yankee coach, Howser finally seemed to have found his permanent niche last year when he returned to coach his alma mater, Florida State, and live the sanely paced good life.

Howser occupies a fitting middle ground between placid Bob Lemon, who simply let veteran champions play, and Billy Martin, who had to leave his imprint on every inning.

"I've been told that you have to blow smoke at the veterans . . . do a selling job on them to make them enthusiastic, make them think their role is bigger than it is," says Howser.

"The guys on this team see through that so fast it's pathetic. I just tell 'em the plain facts. That'll have to be good enough."

The plain facts are that the Yankees have five key players who will be over 35 this year: Tommy John (37), May (36), Luis Tiant (39), Graig Nettles (36) and Lou Piniella (37). Reggie Jackson, Watson and Bobby Murcer are 34.

This is the oldest contender in baseball. And the slowest. It has two premier starters in John and Ron Guldry, a fine infield defense, and a potentially superb bullpen.

But it also has a ton of questionable pitching arms like those of Ed Figueroa, Don Gullett and Tiant, as well as a suspect outfield defense. As for the new right-handed power, both Watson and Soderholm probably will be swallowed by Death Valley, like so many before them.

Only one thing is sure. If the Yankees stay grounded in fourth place again -- and that's certainly possible -- then this schizophrenic squad will need yet another personality transplant next year.

All we've seen so far is some tidy spring cleaning. The greatest millionaire's rummage sale in history may be on the horizon.