Finding Jim Frey around a ballpark is hard work. After 30 years as one of baseball's faithful, but unnoticed, he tends to blend in, like a resin bag cast carelessly on the mound, or a pine tar rag lying unseen in the on-deck circle. Even with his name and number printed on his back, the Kansas City manager would be safe from a process server with a subpoena.

Leaning on the battling a cage, lounging in a dugout corner, or warming up a bullpen pitcher, Frey has always seemed as comfortable, indigenous and inconspicuous as a favorite fungo bat at a jaw full of Red Man.

"Where's that Frey? I never can find him," muttered Brooks Robinson, rounding the corner of the batting cage this evening. "I wanna get on his case."

"Whose case?" asked Frey, so close so invisible that the Hall of Famer jumped back.

"How come," began Robinson, "for the last 10 years you were our Baltimore) coach, and you didn't know nothin'. Now, you're their (Kansas City's) manager, you're nine games out in front and you know everything?"

"Nine games?" responded Frey, shifting his chaw and taking off his Royal blue cap and looking inside. "I keep the league standing right here in my hat, and they say we're up by 10 1/2 games.

"I'll keep worryin' until there's nothing to worry about any more."

Frey put his hat back on, leaving a circle of casual observers convinced that the rookie manager was so insecure that he kept the standings in his hat.

"That's Frey." Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver said, hearing the tale. "He can look in the face and lie better than any man I ever met.

"Just like all of us who had to come up the hard way, the guys who spent 20 years in the minors, we had to learn all the quick answers, all the angles," Weaver said. "Guys like Frey and me, we gotta have the answer ready before the other guy thinks of the question. That's how you survive."

The common denominator of managers is the look in their eyes: friendly but wary, a worry about something nobody else sees. Manager think the world is going to pull a gun on them and ask for their wallets. They're the guys who have to have the answer ready before the question is born.

For 30 years, Jim Frey has been getting his answers lined up, hoping that someday somebody would ask him the questions. now, at 49, he is getting his chance.

"Just call Frey the Rolls-Royce of rookie managers," Baltimore's Ken Singleton said. grinning.

Frey, of course, will look at you with that genial poker face, pretending to be about as bright as a catcher's mitt, and make you believe that he has risen to his current prominence -- candidate for manager of the year -- by a succession of casual accidents.

"I keep hearing the phrase, 'He's paid his dues,'" Frey said, "like baseball has been heartache and toil forme.

"Well, I played 14 years in the minors, and I enjoyed them all.

"I managed two years at Bluefield (rookie ball) and liked it. I was a scout four years and just hoped I could do it until I retired. My first few years as a coach in the majors, I just wanted to get my pension. I couldn't believe that after all those years in the minors, I was sitting on the bench in the World Series and playing pinochle three hours a day with Hall of Famers.

"After a few years with the Orioles, sure, I thought about managing in the majors. But I figured, 'Who the hell would give me a job?' So I just kinda did my job and waited."

All that, in a way, is absolutely true. that Frey is a 13-handicap on the golf courses.

"Frey will beat you any way he can," Weaver said. "I set him up to play golf with three friends of mine in Miami. When Frey got on the plan in Baltimore, he was a solid four-handicap. When he got off in Florida he was a 13.

"In one flight," Weaver said "Frey had picked up nine strokes, and I had lost three friends."

This, like anything Weaver and Frey say about each other, is largely tongue in cheek -- but always with a kernel of truth.

Frey always has been willing for the world to mistake his sharp mind and his constant competitiveness for the bespectacled, frumpy casualness of an unambitious man.

"People always mistaken me for the neighborhood school teacher or accountant," he said. "When I was MVP of the Texas League in '57 and went to the all-star game, the cop on the gate wouldn't let me in the park.

"I said, 'I'm Jim Frey, I'm leading this league in hitting.

"He said, 'Sure you are. Get lost, fella.'

"To this day," Frey said with pleasure, "there isn't a ballpark in the big leagues that I can get into without showing my pass."

"Wha'd I tell ya," Weaver said with a snort upon hearing this tale. "Frey's the biggest bullfeather artist in the world. He takes pride in bein' able to talk his way past anybody. You'd trust him with your wallet.

"Frey'll talk his way into heaven." Perhaps while Weaver is still outside the gates arguing with St. Peter about the rule book.

Frey seems the least intense of men. Don't believe it. Behind the slightly tinted glasses and the hat tilted and few look in), Frey mixes Dutch uncle goodwill with the knack for observation of a good sleuth. When they make the movie of John LeCarre's dumpy superspy, George Smiley, Frey can play him.

"Jimmy picks his spots," Weaver recalled. "Billy Hunter, George Bamberger, Frey and I used to play a lot of (the card game) hearts when we were all in the minors. We'd all try to think up new ways to slap down that evil queen of spades on each other.

"One day, I dropped her on Frey a couple of times. So he waited until he could get me. He got up on his chair, climbed up on the table and threw the queen of spades down on me from the ceiling," Weaver said.

"I don't appreciate it," Weaver recalled, "'cause I could never top that

How could I drop it on him from higher than the ceiling?"

To this day, Frey loves to get the better of Weaver, the man after whom he has, in many baseball ways, patterned himself.

"Well folks, that's the end of my interview with Jim Frey today in Manager's Corner," Weaver said this evening, signing off his pregame radio show.

While the show still was rolling live, Frey said, just in time to get in the last word, "Okay, Earl, where's my free radio?"

Both Weaver and Frey are 49. Both spent 20 years in the minors. And both have always given the 99 percent perspiration that Thomas Edison said was necessary to genius. Weaver, however, was always the one with the other 1 percent of inspiration.

Frey has recognized that and in a dozen tactical and technical ways is a Weaver clone. Frey has transported the whole Oriole cannon to the Midwest without shame. From spring training fundamentals to pitching theory to a preference for "big inning" baseball, Frey is a desciple of the Bird baseball bible.

The 5-foot-8 Frey has found a set of answers that meet all the possible question and he's not abandoning them.

"Jim Frey shouldn't talk about theories," Frey said. "All baseball ideas one old ideas."

Perhaps nowhere else in sports can a man who has spent a lifetime camouflaged suddenly become the boss.

That spectacular reversing of the clubhouse packing order -- that raising high of the man who always has been content to lay low -- cannot be more graphically demonstrated than by looking at the baseball itself.

Every club autographs balls as prized souvenirs for collectors. The top man on the totem pole -- the star player or glamor manager -- signs the ball, large and bold, dead center between the seams. Every other signature must be fitted in somewhere else. The low man on the totem pole is the coach who must nag the players constantly to "Come on, sign some balls."

Last season, the Orioles always had four dozen balls in autograph circulation. Frey was in charge of them, grumbling and prodding the stars to take 10 minutes to write their names 48 times. Next week, same chore.

"Watch out for Frey." the Birds would tease him. "He's got a ball in his pocket for you to sign."

And just like all his other duties for 30 years -- hitting fungos, warming up pitchers as a left-handed catcher, filling out endless scouting reports -- Frey got more completely autographed balls than any coach before him.

On those hallowed balls, Weaver's name was in the middle in broad strokes. Squeezed directly beneath it on every ball, smaller and loss obstrusive, was Frey's.

Now, the man who blends in so well that he was almost never discovered by his game, can sign the ball first.

And sign it any darn where he pleases.