One day, the thought came to Jerry Coleman: "I'm 55 years old and I don't look out windows anymore."

The idea came to him on an airplae when he saw a man say excitedly to his wife, "Dear, come here. You've got to look at his view."

All his life, Coleman had been a man who could not wait to get to the next window, the next vista, the next challenge.

He had played nine years for the New York Yankees and been MVP of one of the six World Series in which he played. He had flown 120 combat missions as a Marine pilot in both World War II and Korea, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses and becoming a lieutenant colonel.

After baseball and war, Coleman attacked business and media. He became an executive for the Van Heusen shirt company and spent 20 years as a play-by-play radio broadcaster for CBS, the Yankees and, for the past eight years, the San Diego Padres.

But, slowly, the mainspring of his life was winding down. His children were grown, his work overly familiar. "Nothing new is happening to me," he said. "I'm going past things without noticing them. My idea of a perfect "off" day is never to get dressed. And I don't look out windows anymore."

For a man who loathes "idle reading like Mickey Spillane or idle games like golf," for a man who has worked his way through "War and Peace" and the Durants' "History of Civilization," such a condition was intolerable.

"You can't be this jaded," Coleman told himself.

So, when the Padre brass started teasing him about becoming a rookie manager at age 55, Coleman finally listened. "Are you kidding?" He asked at first.

But he was ready. And he knew it.

"Managing hadn't crossed my mind in 25 years," says Coleman. "But I had no second thoughts. I took it."

Coleman brings to managing the one quality it lacks most -- dignity.

Most managers are worried, or desperate, or paranoid, or unequipped for any other world. They are public princes in borrowed robes that always are in danger of being snatched from them.

Coleman, though his team's 14-15 record annoys him, is a composed, totally civil and relaxed man.

"One quality of greatness is singularity of vision," says Coleman, "a kind of tunnel vision.Diversified thought tends to dissipate itself.

"In that case I guess I'm in trouble," says a laughing Coleman, who in a second life would be a historian.

Certainly, Coleman's approach to managing is singular in its diversity. Handsome as a 6-foot-tall, salt-and-pepper gray leading man, yet reserved to the verge of seeming like a school teacher, Coleman does not fit into any managing tradition.

"Once, I wanted very much to be a general manager," says Coleman, thinking back to the late 1950s with the Yankees. "But, through the fault of no particular person, my job as personnel director became no more than that of a glorified scout. My duties were usurped and that was the end-of that road.

"If I had been offered a managing job then -- 20 years ago -- I would have come to spring training a nervous wreck trying to figure what was expected of me.

"In all honesty, I want to do well in this job. I don't want to come out with egg on my face. But, whatever happens, it will be done in a way I feel comfortable with.

"If there comes a point where they feed the need to mutiny, they'll have to go ahead and do it.I don't believe in bringing men to heel, trying to control them with fear or rules. I attack a problem when it presents itself . . . not before it arrives."

Coleman is a man some people -- who don't know him well -- consider comic. Because he never managed before, because he has gone from the radio booth to the dugout, and because the Padres have been and are an overpaid, underinspired club with a knack for the bizarre and the inept, Coleman has been tarnished a bit by association.

The night before Coleman's hiring was announced, a made-for-TV movie had tiny child actor Gary Coleman playing the moronic role of a midget hired to manage a bumbling San Diego baseball team.

Headlines the next day asked, long-suffering Padre fans, "Padres hire Jerry Coleman, or did they mean Gary?"

Stories began to surface recounting Coleman's collection of radio bloopers from his eight years as Padre announcer. "I may have actually said that "Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen,'" says Coleman with remarkable good humor. "But I don't remember saying that 'Winfield's going back to the fence . . . he hits his head on the wall . . . and it's rolling back toward the infield.'"

If Coleman does not suffer from taking himself seriously, it may be because he has faced truly serious matters.

"The first time I went to war, I was 18, and I couldn't wait to become a hero.

"The second time (Korea), I was married with two children and I was sure I was going to die.

"When World War II ended. I remember sitting with other young pilots and saying, 'What are we going to do now,' almost as though it were a disappointment," says the highly decorated Coleman.

"But when the Korean War ended, I remember I was back in a Yankee uniform in four days. It was a pennant race and I remember looking at my teammates frothing at the mouth.

"I remember thinking, 'This is childish. Who cares?' The night before, I had had to visit the wife of a squadron mate who had five children. She wanted to be absolutely sure that her husband had died, that he wasn't possibly a prisoner of war, and I was the closest pilot who had seen his plane explode!

"It took me a year to care about baseball again. Something was missing in me. I had seen the game for what it was -- a game. Maybe it's a blessing that most of us can forget our deepest insights and not be confronted with them all the time."

If Coleman makes mistakes, he has a team full of folks who will spot them and mutter about them. Coleman's worst moment to date came here Saturday night, when, after too much wheeling and dealing, he was reduced to playing a catcher at first base and, with two out in the ninth, had to pinch hit a pitcher for a pitcher.

"I don't think my team liked what happened tonight," said Coleman.

He was right. "That was a bad display, real bad," said one veteran Padre. "No one disputes that Jerry's a fine man, but we need a manager. He's a rookie and he's having his problems."

Coleman's managing will have to go some to be worse than the play of the Padres, who lost 93 in '79.

"I believe you can be a successful manager regardless of talent," Coleman says. "Gene Mauch is a good example. The first time I met Gene, 30 some years ago, his cleats were in my chest. One winter, he told me. 'The worst thing is the day that you realize you want to win more than the players do.'

"Whether I am in this job for one year, or two or three, I'm not looking for greatness. I want to do a creditable job.

"I would not say that I am having a good time these days, especially not along about the fifth inning of a close game. It's more like a very intense chore.

"It's not like those years with the Yankees when you always got the bad guys in the end.

"Let's just say," said Jerry Coleman, looking intently out the window, "That I am enjoying this to whatever degree that is possible."