Earl Weaver he was talking about just emotional progression -- the overall sense of team mood -- within one singularly tense baseball game.

But, unwittingly, he was into the evolution and theme of the entire pennant race between his Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees.

In fact, he may even have been touching on what could be called the emotional equivalent of the law of averages, a kind of collective unconciousness that might be the strongest force in team sports.

"When we were building that lead, we were excited," Weaver said, referring to Sunday's 6-5 Baltimore win in Yankee Stadium -- the culmination of a three-game Oriale sweep -- in which the Birds took a 4-0 lead.

"But, once you've built a lead, you get nervous, I get scared to death and start smoking those damn cigarettes down in the runway and thinkin' about all those things that can go wrong. You keep imagining how one thing can lead to another and wipe out your lead. You can't help it. That's how your brain works.

"Even when they tied it up (4-4 with four runs in the sixth), you're still thinking about how you screwed up.

"But when you're behind you're not nervous," Weaver said animatedly, like a man who knows he is speaking a lifelong truth that he feels in the gut but never bothers to analyze. "You know nothing.

"As soon as they're back in front, you're thinking is, 'Let's go get'em. They can't do this to us.'"

So, there you have it. It's so simple, and explains so much, that it's almost depressing. An athletic equivalent of the anthropologist's territorial imperative? An animal defends its home ground fiercely, but grows more timid the farther it ranges from its territory and into that of another.

Having a lead stolen away -- the humiliation of being overtaken and falling behind -- brings out the visceral back-to-the-wall simplicity of the animal defending home turf: "You know nothing . . . All you're thinking is, 'Let's go get'em . . .'"

Those are the words of a man who, for 30 years, has felt what it means for a team to call on deep atavistic reserves.

On the other hand, the team that feels its large lead shrinking is always anticipating disaster, as though it were being punished for having absconded with something it never deserved in the first place.

"We've not that much better than they are," Yankee Manager Dick Howser said after his team's 11-game lead had shriveled to just 2 1/2 games by Sunday night. "We always anticipated a dog fight. We didn't want one. We tried to avoid it but we expected a struggle."

A dog fight? The league standings as turf?

The magnificent series in Yankee Stadium last weekend was a perfect illustration of the righteous, clear-concience pursuers and the self-doubting, do-we-have-a-right-to-be-here-pursued.

The fact that the contests were in Yankee Stadium was largely irrelevant in the first two games; the territory in question was not physical but mental. The Orioles simply were reclaiming ground in the standings to which they believed they had a right. The Yankees didn't like the notion, but, in the backs of their minds, they agreed.

But, on Sunday, it was the Yankees who were riled. Being swept in your own ball yard is another sort of pshchic stimulus. You don't allow that to happen, no matter what the larger progression of the whole season.

So, the two excellent, roughly equal, foes had a genuinely complex tug of war -- one of those games that seemed to have doisconcerting elements of will and fate, as well as sliders low and away and leaping catches at the top of the center-field fence. The currents, the psychic ebbs and flood tides, as well as the tough short-hops and the swirling winds above Death Valley in left-center, all seemed to play off and against each other.

That the Orioles finally won -- partly on skill, partly on the sheer luck of Rick Dempsey, who got a cheap flare hit to tie the game when the Orioles were down to their last strike in the nineth -- had long-range significance.

Ballplayers, as a group, firmly believe that over the course of an interminable 162-game season, the better team almost always wins. So, it is considerable concern to them as they fly all over North America and sit in hotel coffee shops, dugouts and locker rooms for seven months chewing the baseball fat, to decide in their heart of hearts which team actually is better. b

Baseball fans argue such things, wielding statistics and fatuous opinions like brickbats. Ballplayers feel it in their bones. They seek an hors-de-combat truth that perhaps only people between the white lines ever know.

After all the trivia of baseball numbers is thumbed to dust, perhaps the best way to know who will win a pennant race is to listen to tone of voice. You can hear the outcome hanging between sentences.

"We've got me," Reggie Jackson said. "If they pitch around me, what have we got? The Orioles have Singleton and Murray -- 1 and 1A. They're both switch-hitters. You can't play percentages. You can't pitch around them. You just gotta face'em and take your chances."

Boiled down to numbers, this means that Jackson was one for eight with five walks and one RBI in the series. The men behind him -- the Nos. 5, 6, 7 hitters -- who had to produce with Graig Nettles ailing, came to bat 36 times in three days with a total 31 men on base.

They drove in zero runs. Stranded them all, every one.

Singleton and Murray, battle .411 with 11 hits. By contrast, the Yankees' Jackson, Willie Randolph, Jim Spencer (zero for nine with 10 men left on base), Eric Soderholm and Lou Piniella batted .111 with one RBI.

Along the same line of tactics revealed by statistics, the Yankees juggled their starting pitching so they could start three southpaws (who also were their three leading winners) against an Oriole team whose only known structural weakness was a distaste for left-handers, particularly curve ballers.

The Birds pinned a loss on all three, Guidry Underwood and John, and now have an almost hard to believe streak of 12 straight wins over left-handed starters. If that is your foes' weakness, and you set your traps accordingly, then what in the world is their strength?

Strong southpaw Oriole bats, like Lowenstein, Crowley, Kelly and Graham, got to the plate only three times in the lefty-hitting heaven of Yankee Stadium -- and those appearances were against Goose Gossage.

So, the Yanks had pulled some of the Orioles' best teeth. Yet Lowenstein (Friday) and Crowley (Saturday) each delivered crushing, eight-inning game-changing hits off Gossage. By Sunday, howser preferred to leave in John for 11 hits and a defeat, rather than wave to his right-handed bullpen and face the Orioles' bench.

The Yankees had to face more dispiriting truths about themselves. Their Death Valley outfield takes no prisoners; it reveals the brutal truth about mediocre outfielders, and thats the only kind the Yankees have. The pin stripe pickets took turns "not quite getting there".

Without Nettles, the left side of the Yankee infield goes from excellent to average, and that isn't good news for a team with four left-handed starters. t

The short-term effects of recent days may be simple, while the long range results are as doubtful as the flight path of a butterfly.

At the moment, the Yanks seems pathetically desperate and in full choke from top to bottom.

"When the storm comes and you're riding in well-built Rolls-Royce," said Jackson, the car collector, "you calmly turn on the windshield wipers and drive a little slower.

"What you don't do is panic and punch all the wrong buttons on the dashboard, take your eyes off the road and drive with one hand. We have to stay calm and ride out of the storm."

That, however, is not the style of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Sunday night, he had all the Yankee staff -- manager and coaches -- in his office for three hours after the final defeat. He left even later. If Steinbrenner stays in character, he will push a lot of buttons -- hard.

"I never try to manage the other club," Weaver said, when encouraged to second-guess various curious Yankee moves during the series.

"Why?" Weaver added mischeviously. "Cause you never know for sure who's over there managing 'em."

The worst peice of Yankee luck may be that they now have to come to Baltimore for five games this week -- while they probably still will have a lead. The catch-up psychology is still in Baltimore's corner, a point Weaver constantly plays on by saying, I'd rather be where they are."

The best piece of New York fortune is that the seasons still have a full one-third to run.

"Remember how we beat Boston six times in a row in September in '78," Jackson said Sunday. "Four times in Boston, then the first two in New York. Then, after we were finally ahead of them they won the last game from us.

"We didn't think it meant anything. But damned if they didn't play from that day on -- won the last eight of the year -- and we had to go to Boston for a playoff. Scared us to death.

"Might be something in that," Jackson said, thinking far ahead.

The likelihood is that the Yankees will continue to play just badly enough to lose -- missing balls in the outfield or getting thrown out on bonehead steals like Ruppert Jones did in New York -- until all their lead is gone, and perhaps a little more to boot.

The Orioles need not gloat. They ought to know the progression bitterly well. They did the whole number after leading Pittsburgh three games to one in the last World Series. Then, the Birds had no time to regroup, not time to get mad, no time -- as Weaver put it -- to "know nothing"; to reach down to the unconscious and play like animals protecting their home turf.

But the Yankees probably will have time.

They have been buried in New York. And they also may be buried in Baltimore.

But sooner or later -- unless they become convinced they are not a fine team -- the Yankees will get that utterly calm, vengeful, pride-at-stake look in their eyes. They will come back, as they did Sunday.

And then a time of complex ebbs and flows, unspoken self-appraisals, will be reached -- like the potential final pitch between John and Dempsey on Sunday.

But, then, that final testing will not come in August. It will come in September. And it will last for weeks. It's called a pennant race.