When a truly awful baseball team, such as the Toronto Blue Jays, wakes up in first place on a blissful May morn, the reaction of the typical fan is to murmur, "How nice."

This, of course, is wrong. Nothing is crueler in a cruelly lifelike sport than the way baseball nurtures ridiculous hopes each spring and plays on the most basic of human frailties -- the capacity for self-delusion.

The Blue Jays, who, over the three previous years of their existence, have established themselves as the worst team in the 80-year history of the American League, are only the most recent victim.

Perhaps only those whose young lives were marked by adolescent affairs with abominable clubs can understand the pernicious influence of publishing league standings before the Fourth of July.

To wit, the Blue Jays this season have a chance to tie the Washington Senators of 1961-1964 as the only AL club ever to lose 100 games in four straight seasons.

Even those expansion Nats, however, could not approach the ineptness of the Jays, whose losing percentage throughout their short but miserable history has been .343 (166 won, 318 lost). For comparison, only one Senator team from 1910 through '71 (the '49 Nats) ever had a percentage that bad.

Now, however, the Blue Jays are in first place and, by some inexplicable baseball code, they are compelled to make jest of themselves by talking about winning the pennant.

"I'd say we've improved about a million percent," said third baseman Roy Howell.

"We have a different hero every day," said pitcher Dave Lemanczyk. "That's how you win pennants."

"Our spirit is totally different," said John Mayberry.

"We've worked on fundamentals all spring," said Rick Bosetti. "We're making all the routine plays."

Heaven help this team that had the worst pitching in baseball last year, and wouldn't know a fundamental if it fell on one. It's falling for the oldest, saddest gag in baseball: that you can transform yourself overnight.

"The last two years, we were 4-24 against Milwaukee. This year, we've beaten them five straight, and we beat 'em good, too," said Bosetti. "That was sweet."

Tuesday night here, the Blue Jays beat the defending AL West champion California Angels, 3-2, in a game typical of their season. That is to say, they played with World Series spirit and intensity and won a game in which they ought to have been obliterated.

At one point, three consecutive Angels tagged balls, but the left-fielder pulled one out of the seats, the centerfielder caught one at the top of the wall and the right-fielder snagged one in the gap with a lunging catch.

In the seventh inning, Howell, so sick with the flu that he couldn't start, pinch-hit a two-run homer that proved to be the game-winner.

In the eighth, the Angels loaded the bases for MVP Don Baylor against reliever Joey McLaughlin. Baylor hit into a DP.

In the ninth, McLaughlin walked the bases full, courting disaster. In came lefty Jerry Garvin, career record 14-31. But the Angels, through miscalculation, were left with only southpaw hitters. So, Garvin got the save.

Had the Pittsburgh Pirates won such a game, they would have looked themselves in the eye and said, "We lucked out."

The Blue Jays, to a man, thought they had won a textbook game.

The painful aspect about every terrible team that desperately wants to become good is that it refuses to accept going through a phase where it is merely bad.

The Blue Jays, with luck and hard work, could be a bad team this year -- one that instead of losing 109 games (the most in baseball) as it did last year, might improve by 15 or more games.

But, it is a rare player who has the wisdom that Rick Monday demonstrated several years ago when, as a Chicago Cub, he was asked during a fast Cub start, "What's the difference between this season and last season?"

"Last year, we had to play 162 games," said Monday. "This year we've only had to play 24."

Fortunately for the Blue Jays, the man most responsible for their modest turnabout -- 64-year-old rookie manager Bob Mattick -- is a baseball realist.

"Our goal for '80," he said, gazing down on the rest of the American League from first place, "is not to lose 100 games. If we keep playing like we are, we have a chance."

This is the man that the Blue Jays need.

The white-haired, pipe-smoking Mattick has brought three things to the Blue Jays: relaxation, solid baseball judgment and competent, fundamental coaching.

"We've gone back to basics, which obviously we needed, 'cause at one time or another, every phase of our game has been horsefeathers," said Bosetti.

"We trust Mattick.By last year, it seemed like Hartsy (Manager Roy Hartsfield) didn't even seem to be trying anymore. He'd given up. He'd do something totally off the wall in the late innings out of desperation."

For more than 30 years, Mattick has been one of the most respected scouts and player-personnel executives in baseball. His signees include Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Rusty Staub, Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Darrell Porter, Gorman Thomas, Sixto Lezcano, ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie and Gary Roenicke.

His reputation -- from Cincinnati to Houston to Baltimore to Milwaukee to Montreal -- was established. He didn't need to manage. He was the guy who picked managers. But, he couldn't pass up the chance, just once. "I figured if they had the guts to keep offering the job to me," said Mattick, "then I had the guts to accept it."

"You've got to be the dumbest SOB I ever met," Gene Mauch told Mattick, not joking since he felt the respected Mattick was above the indignity of being held accountable for the Jays' sins.

"Don't worry," Earl Weaver told Mattick. "The fans don't start booing until July."

The Blue Jays' biggest enemy is not their modest talent or their manager's inexperience or even their own dismal history. It is their current unrealistic excess of happiness and the swarms of softheaded folk who are wishing them luck in their pennant race.

Those who really wish the Blue Jays well, as any student of 100-game losing teams must know, would wish them bad luck.

Because for the Toronto Blue Jays, even bad luck would be a big improvement.