"Nothing has ever come easy to me. It took me eight years to make the big leagues as a player and eight years to become a manager. But I always made it. The opportunity finally came. One thing about me, I make the most of an opportunity." -- Maury Wills

Maury Wills pushed back the blue cap with the gold "M" on the front and squinted into the sun as if measuring it to check the time.

"Off day," he said. "Good day to work."

He strode briskly to the Oakland Coliseum batting cage, where three members of the Seattle Mariners -- Julio Cruz, Larry Milbourne and Juan Beniquez stood waiting for him. They were waiting for their manager, their boss, their leader.

Wills' greeting was brief. He picked up a bat and began talking earnestly to Cruz, a fleet second baseman whose .213 batting average is one of many reasons the Mariners have baseball's worst record and a 12-game losing streak that was broken tonight against Oakland.

"Julio, I want you to be the exact same kind of player Maury was," Wills said. "You're fast and you're quick and you're about my size. We're going to make you a pesky, slap hitter. There's a way to do it and I'm going to teach you."

Wills stepped into the batting cage and signaled to the pitching coach, Wes Stock, to begin throwing. He fouled off the first three pitches.

"Stroke it off," he muttered. The next three pitches, Wills, choking up on the bat, punched the ball to left field. He never stopped talking to Cruz as he swung.

Then he gave Cruz the bat. As he watched Cruz successfully follow his instructions, Wills got excited. "He can steal bases like Maury Wills," the manager with a 1-3 lifetime record said. "All I have to do is get him on first base."

He smiled confidently. "I'll do it."

He is 47 now. There are crow's feet around his eyes, some lines above his mouth and some gray in his hair.

It has been 30 years since Maury Wills of Alabama Avenue SE, the seventh of 13 children, was voted the outstanding black high school athlete in Washington as a Cardozo High senior. Those were the days when blacks and whites didn't compete against each other in the segregated school system.

His body still is sleek, still brings back memories of the graceful short-stop who, in 1962, was the National League's most valuable player as he stole 104 bases for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

He retired in 1972, hoping then to become baseball's first black manager. Last Monday when the fourth-year Mariners chose him to replace third Darrell Johnson, he became baseball's third black manager, following Frank Robinson (Cleveland, 1975-77) and Larry Doby (Chicago White Sox, 1978).

His first 72 hours as a manager are not his favorite topic.

"The media's driving me crazy," he said, the words coming quickly, in staccato bursts. "I've been a broadcaster. I know their problems. But jeez, I haven't even had a chance to say hello to all my players yet.

When I took over we were one percentage point out of last place. I managed one game and we went into last place. Great managing, huh?

"I'm already exhausted. I've barely had any sleep since Monday. This job is work."

Wills isn't complaining. Managing is something he's wanted to do for 15 years. Since he retired, he has worked as a coach/instructor for eight different major league teams, waiting for the chance he believed he deserved.

"I thought about why I hadn't been given a shot. I wondered about it," he said. "I never really came up with an answer. Not an answer that I liked, anyway."

One answer comes to mind: color.

"Of course, the thought crosses my mind," he said. "But I dismissed it. I was only speculating. I don't like to speculate. I like to deal in facts."

Facts: Maury Wills is baseball's third black manager. Facts: he believes he will be baseball's first successful black manager.

"There's no question in my mind about my ability to manage. I know what kind of teaching skills I have because I've seen the effect my teaching has had on players I've worked with.

"I first began fantasizing about being a manager back in '65. I found myself second-guessing all the time. I realized I wanted to be the man in charge some day.

"All I wanted was a team. I didn't care whether it was a first-place team or a last-place team. I've got a last-place team here. It won't stay that way. Last night, we blew a fundamental bunt play. I guarantee you we won't blow that play next year -- or next month, for that matter.

"I know I can make this team a winner. I have complete confidence in myself almost to the point of being cocky."

The man who hired him, Seattle President Dan O'brien claims to be equally confident.

"He was the only man we talked to when we decided it was time to make a change. I've known Maury since I was with Texas and we signed (his son) Bump. I've always liked him, even though we had a dispute over Bump's contract one year. Anyone you talk to in baseball will tell you the man is a superb teacher."

Stock watched Wills bouncing in and out of the batting cage Thursday and shook his head. "Guys like him are almost a vanishing breed," he said. "You would hope managers would still be teachers, but often they aren't. A lot of managers figure because a guy's in the big leagues he knows how to play baseball. That's only true up to a point. Most of them don't know how to play major league baseball. There's a big difference. Maury knows that."

Clearly, Wills wants to work closest with the players whose skills are similar to his. Cruz and Milbourne are in that mold, especially Cruz.

"It's amazing," Cruz said, after Wills had drilled him for more than two hours Thursday on everything from hitting to how to cross first base. "All year, no one said a word to me, now this.

"It's a great feeling to get some attention. He knows what he's talking about. He's going to make me a star, you watch. I'm going to name my first kid Maury. If it's a girl, I'll name it Maury."

Wills' own child, Bump, the Texas Rangers' second baseman, is, as you might expect, the new manager's biggest booster.

"He's wanted this an awfully long time," said the younger Wills, who is 27. "When I heard he got the job, I just felt totally elated because I knew he felt that way, too."

His father is trying a low-key approach. In 1975, when Robinson was chosen to manage the Indians, Wills admitted disappointment.

"No question Frank will do an excellent job," he said then. "But, honestly speaking, I think I would have been the best choice. I say that arrogantly, confidently, and self-assuredly. Whoever hires me will get one hell of a manager."

That feeling hasn't changed. But having been denied the chance to be the first black manager, Wills sees no point in discussing his feelings about being the third.

"I don't think you should even bring it up," he said. "If people do, well, I think it's ridiculous and I'll probably tell them that. I'm the manager here, not the black manager. I'm the manager that's going to make this team win."

That doesn't mean Wills expects to avoid the attention he now receives. "Ever since I stole 104 bases, everything Maury Wills has done has been news. I'm not like Jim Frey (Royals), who says he goes easily unnoticed, or Dick Howser (Yankees), who says he's Joe Average.

"I think I had a hand in revolutionizing baseball, turning it from a power game into a running game. That's nice. But that also means I get noticed. It means I get praised but it also means I get criticized. Sometimes it hurts. I'm sensitive to criticism. It hurts me when people say bad things about me. I know I'm a good person. All I've ever asked anyone for is a chance."

Wills says he has failed twice in his life, in his marriage, which ended in 1965, and with the Montreal Expos in 1969 when he was supposed to be the savior and wasn't. He doesn't plan on making Seattle failure No. 3.

"The players know I had to work to earn everything I've ever gotten from baseball. They know I didn't make it on natural skills, that I made it on hard work. I think they'll respect that. I think they'll work for Maury Wills."

The sun was beginning to set, a chill was in the air. Nevetheless, Wills, Stock, Coach Bill Mazeroski and the three players worked.

Wills was trying to prove to the players that they were bunting incorrectly.

A contest was arranged, the spoils being a bottle of white wine. It was Wills versus the three players. It was no contest, Wills winning easily.

The players, even though exhausted, were laughing hysterically as they came off the field, gratified by the workout, glad to laugh with their new boss.

"Well," said Wills after winning the contest, "I finally got my first win as a manager."