"Hey, Reg, I want to check with you about your leg," New York Manager Dick Howser said, tapping Reggie Jackson on the shoulder as the Yankee Slugger ambled past him in the dugout Friday night.

"I can hit," said the major league home-run leader, limping on a swollen ankle off which he had fouled a pitch the night before. "Don't know if I can field."

"Then you're the DH tonight," Howser said, his lineup still uncertain less than an hour before game time.

"I don't wanna do that to (Eric) Soderholm," Jackson said, knowing who would be benched if he couldn't play right field.

"I need your bat, even against a lefty," Howser said.

Jackson nodded soberly, a man, after 15 years in his profession, proud to be consulted on decisions, trusted.

"Lemme take infield (practice). See how it feels," Jackson said. "I hate to take Soderholm's bat out (Soderholm was hitting .342)."

"Let me worry," Howser said. "You rest the leg and DH."

This conversation took only seconds, but it was indicative of the Yankee season.

An hour later, Jackson hobbled out to right field without complaint, playing hurt. "I can hack it," he told Howser. So with Soderholm as DH, New York had its best possible lineup on the field.

Howser -- by consulting, stroking, suggesting, temperance -- had prickled Jackson's pride, his team feeling. And, yes, perhaps his vanity.Once again, more flies had been caught with honey than with vinegar.

The morale of a baseball team, its staying power over a six-month season, is built or eroded in countless small ways. Few teams have needed more tactical and psychological fine-tunings than these '80 Yankees.

It is a manager's tricky job, like a jockey's on a temperamental thoroughbred, to figure out the best "ride" -- when to rate, when to coax, when to whip.

Little rookie manager Howser has had a big, chancey horse under him: a Yankee club with $14 million worth of Hessian free agents, a dozen or more millionaire players and blue-chip rookies everywhere trying to steal the jobs of famous men.

So far, Howser has shown the soft, firm, instinctive wise hands of a Shoemaker, taking pinstripe silks out to a 9 1/2-length lead just past the midpoint of the long pennant race.

"Everything is tranquil for now," said the 43-year-old Howser. "But this has not been an easy club to manage.

"We've had several confrontations. I got a negative response from some veterans early. I'd rather keep an appointment with the dentist than face some of the closed-door meetings I've had in my office this year."

"Let's just say you've got some real temperamental veterans on this team . . . like about a dozen of 'em," reserve catcher Johnny Oates said, with a chuckle. "There hasn't been much noise in our clubhouse, 'cause all the talking has been done in Howser's office. Whatever he's saying in there, it might be working, 'cause some people have come out that door with a lot different attitude than they went in.

"Some players just aren't going to believe how things stand until they hear it from the horse," Oates said.

"Howser never embarrasses anybody out here," he said, pointing at the Yankee commons room where Billy Martin threw many a rage. "And he doesn't expect anybody to embarrass him.

"It all happens in there," Oates said, nodding at Howser's office.

The Yankees have lived two lives this season -- a loud and simple one on the field, and a quiet and complex one in the clubhouse.

"We aren't too tough a team to figure out," third baseman Graig Nettles said. "How complicated are pitching and home runs?"

With 117 homers, a 3.69 earned-run average (second in the AL and a .659 winning percentage .65 points better than last year's fourth-place club), the Yank technique has been self-evident. "All year, we've scored big early, then had a pretty good time," said Nettles.

Add to those components a decent defense, a deep bullpen, a long bench and hidden power with platoons in left field and DH, and what team do these Yankees resemble most?

"I'd say we look a whole lot like the Orioles of last year," said Nettles.

"Both sorta slow, but not so it hurts you. Play for the big inning. Great depth. They had more pitching depth. We have more player depth."

What is most fascinating about the Yanks, however, is not their outward style, but the inward substance -- the rich, new chemistry of the Howser clubhouse.

For months, one veteran Yankee after another has been wising up to the fact that Howser, whom they thought of as an old chum, is the man who is, in fact, delivering a message from management: past glory is not negotiable.

Graig Nettles smashed runway lights after being removed three days running for a young pinch hitter -- what indignity for the man who, over the last six years, has hit more homers than any other American Leaguer except Jackson and Jim Rice.

Luis Tiant threw his glove 15 rows into the Yankee Stadium stands after Howser hooked him in mid shutout.

Lou Piniella threatened to retire if he didn't get more playing time, while a stunned Bobby Murcer squealed that Howser had "betrayed" him by putting him on the bench.

Next, it was Ed Figueroa, coming off surgery, who played crybaby after Howser shipped him to the mop-up extremity of the bullpen with no promise of a return ticket to the starting rotation.

Now it is Jim Spencer who looks like a human storm cloud. After 23 homers last year, Spencer had it written into his contract that he must start against all right-handed pitchers. But for the last fortnight, Spencer hasn't started against anybody. "I'd like to get Spencer more at-bats," Howser said. "But unless somebody gets hurt, I don't see how."

The old Bronx champions of 1977-78 never had as much potential for genuine animosity as this crew does. But, because of Howser's savvy and luck, the fuse keeps sputtering yet the spark never reaches the dynamite.

"When you had the kind of career that I did," said Howser, a .248 hitting utility infielder in eitht big league seasons with three teams, "you learn to look at the game the way it really is. There's always more pressure on the borderline player, like me, because if you don't produce, you're gone.

"The star player never has to make the decisions -- or take the hard looks at himself -- that almost everybody else does. The guys who have to look for an offseason job the day after the season ends, the guys who have to pound it (the pavement) and find out what's going on in the real world, usually end up the managers.

"Some guys that I might have used to play golf with, or go to the track, or play jokes with -- they suddenly think I've become more callous," Howser said, thinking of those fellows with whom he has had his dentist appointments.

"Maybe it was my fault for not realizing that they needed to have things spelled out. I have deep roots with these guys. Fives years from now, we'll be friends. But now . . ."

But now Howser's top priority is captured in one pithy dictum: "In this job, if I don't make the right decisions for the team, rather than any individual, then I'm gone."

Thus, far, it appears to be one of Howser's gifts that he can transmit bad news in its most palatable form. Every veteran has exited his office -- whether chastened or wised up -- with a sudden fresh energy and a surge of hits or wins.

In a season of some Yankee injuries, that has been a blessing. Bucky Dent has missed 17 games, Oscar Gamble 37, Jackson 15, Ruppert Jones 37. Tiant and Figueroa have missed starts with arm trouble.

In addition to rejuvenated gray-beards, like Murcer, Gamble and Spencer who have 22 homers and 85 RBI in 341 at-bats, Howser has nursed the best from his fuzzy cheeks.

"The toughest job has been telling the kids who've come up and saved us with a great job that they have to go back to Columbus (AAA) when a veteran gets well," Howser said.

The contrast with the Martin era, when bad news was delivered by proxy, when veterans were strung along with false hopes until they finally became he-lied-to-me Martin-haters, and when stars like Jackson were ordered rather than consulted, could hardly be more total.

"I can't kid myself," Howser said. "Everything I've tried to do has been made easier by the fact that we were winning. Even good ideas look bad when you lose."

Into this so-far rosey concoction it would be wise to mix a dash of bitters, the kind that a realist like Howser always would anticipate.

It is true that three Yankees are having couldn't-be-better years: Jackson with 25 homers and 71 RBI in just 73 games. Tommy John with a 14.3 record and Goose Gossage with 17 relief points and a 2.64 ERA.

However, the Yanks have a fourth star of this caliber, Ron Guidry. And he worries them, because if Lousiana Lightning becomes just a late-summer squall, their make-shift five-man rotation suddenly becomes ordinary.

"I wish I had some answers, but I don't," said Guidry, who knows how much his 10-5 record belies his 3.46 ERA and 143 hits allowed in 138 innings. "Nothing seems to be going right. Either they're guessing right or I'm throwing wrong, because a lot of people are hitting the ball hard.

"I always used to be able to challenge hitters. Maybe now it's catching up. When you throw good pitches and nothing happens, you begin to wonder," said Guidry, who gave up a dozen hits in his last start and has only four complete games.

"Ron's muscling the ball. He doesn't have that snap-of-the-whip 'pop' on the ball," Jackson said. "He'll deny it, but when you've got contract negotiations on your mind, it has to affect you."

If Guidry, who has been 34-5 after the All-Star break over the past three seasons, returns to form, then the AL East probably can go to sleep. Only a designated starting pitching corps can derail the Yanks, because, Nettles said, "We've got a nucleus of guys on this team who have been through every kind of fir. It's impossible to feel more pressure than the kind we've thrived under before."

However, if Howser wants indigestion, he needs only to think back to Friday night's 13-1 debacle when the Kansas City Royals drubbed Rudy May on his 36th birthday and amassed 21 hits to the Yanks' three.

May, with a 0.94 ERA in his previous eight games, had -- at last -- become a strong fourth starter to go along with John, Guidry and Tom Underwood (8-6).

"It's wishful thinking to expect to have five top starters," said Howser, who was reduced to using several-time castoff Doug Bird in that role tonight. w"But the difference between three that the team trusts and four is big.

So, a vital pat has been handed to the latest courtesy-of-Steinbrenner millionaire.

"Relieve, start, or pinch run -- I'll do anything," said a beaming May, a magnum of champagne in hand despite his birthday misfortune. "I'm paying off the debt. That nice guaranteed contract carries some obligations. I could blow out tomorrow (hurt his arm), and that's okay, as long as the team wins. I pitch every time out like it's my last game ever. I don't hold anything back. They've paid for me, and that means they get everything I've got left."

It will take a good deal to amend the Yankees' first-place position in the standings.

"I'm not worried about anything," Howser said, "but I'm still concerned about things in general."

It was pointed out that today, July 19, was the date when the 1978 Yankees, then 14 games behind Boston, began their great comeback.

"That's exactly what I mean," Howser said. "I've seen leads bigger than ours dwindle in a lot shorter time."

"We say we aren't watching the scoreboard yet," Oates said. "But, of course we are.

"Who are we watching the closest? I'd say Baltimore.

"I don't want to get the Brewers mad, but this club thinks it can beat Milwaukee -- either head to head or over the long haul. It's just a feeling you get around the team.

"This club would have more trouble if it were Baltimore that made the move at us," Oates added. "I sense it from things our pitchers say about their hitters, or comments when their score is flashed up. Baltimore has so often put together second-half streaks of 18 out of 19 or 24 of 26 because their pitching is good every day.

"Teams like Milwaukee or Boston have a little more trouble sweeping a series when against a weak team, because they're more likely to have one bad game."

The Yankees, be assured, are not anticipating a pennant race -- just a nice relaxed summer. They intend to enjoy the luxury of having the best record in baseball, and the best winning percentage at this juncture of any Yankee club since 1957.