It is uncharacteristic to associate the word "spirit" with the Philadelphia Phillies, but baseball fans may soon have to accustom themselves to that novel notion.

The first-place Phils of '80 are not the Gashouse Gang yet. They still have a marginally surly, sometimes bleak and almost fatalistic tinge about the corners of their double-knits. As Pete Rose says, "When a team ain't won nothing in a century, folks get flustrated (sic)."

The surest sign of new life among these Phils (for whom little was predicted this year) is the big grin on the face of fourth-string catcher Tim McCarver, who came out of the Phils' broadcast booth this month so that he could make a token appearance in a game and become the 10th man ever to play in four decades. McCarver is a man who knows winners, having played in three World Series when he was one of the spiritual leaders of the '60s' St. Louis Cardinals. Little did he suspect how much fun he was in for when he squeezed his way back into old No. 11.

"I thought I was the one making the big sacrifice," says McCarver. "It almost felt like an imposition to have to come back to the field after I had made a pretty clean transition to broadcasting. It turned out I wasn't one of those players who mope and moan for the game after they're out of it.

"Maybe I just saw broadcasting as a new challenge, something new to prove I could be successful at. My last few years (as a player), I wasn't exactly a perennial all-star, you know. I was ready for a change," says the 38-year-old McCarver, who has played in 1,903 games and has exactly 1,500 hits.

McCarver was shocked to find that "after a few months in a TV booth, I was much better known than I even was as a player, even when I was (a star) with the Cardinals. To go back to being a pinch-hitter was almost a comedown. It's weird what that camera can do."

But the transformed mood of the Phillies this month has made McCarver glad to spend a few last days in a baseball uniform. "This is the way it's supposed to feel," says McCarver, implying, although not saying, that the Phils' clubhouse did not always have such a competitive and enthusiastic ambiance. "I find myself getting goose bumps and butterflies. This week, they sent me up in the 10th inning of a 0-0 tie with a man on first and none out."

Instead of feeling that he was "making a sacrifice" to be a Phil, McCarver suddenly found himself making what he jokingly calls "the ultimate sacrifice," by laying down a perfect bunt. The next batter -- Rose -- promptly singled home the winning run for a 1-0 triumph.

Such minor acts, such alert and fundamental plays, have the Phils feeling better about themselves. This month, they have a 10-3 record in one-run games, which, in the past, were often the kind they bollixed. "I still wouldn't call us a team that executes particularly well," says 44-homer man Mike Schmidt. "But we're certainly making the effort."

A heretofore unseen bear-down attitude has apparently infected the Phils, at least during their current streak of 13 wins in 21 games. "I think the nucleus of this team is starting to get afraid that time is passing it by," says Tug McGraw, who has 18 saves and a 1.63 ERA in 53 games. "We realize we better do what we were always predicted to do before it gets too late."

"The talent in this division -- with Montreal and Pittsburgh -- has caught up with us," says Schmidt. "We can't overpower people like we did in '76, '77 and '78 (division-championship years). We're aware that we need an extra dimension of emotion," adds Schmidt, who spent years denying that emotion had any role in the game.

Many factors have transformed the Phils from the most disgustingly blase team in the game to one that seems invigorated by discovering how much fun it can be not to act cool at all costs. On the mound, McGraw looks like a hyperactive muppet with his gyrations. "I don't do it for any reason than that's what my body does. I don't tell it what to do," says McGraw, who, after his victory here Friday night, was in tears as he stood at home plate to hug Bake McBride for his ninth-inning, game-winning home run. "Guys on other teams razz me about my antics and ask me kind of pointedly if I'm trying to show them up. To tell the truth, I don't much care what they think."

That oblivious concern about the game, rather than with what other players, fans or critics say, is a step in the right direction for the sometimes overly sensitive Phils. "Even filling out the roster (to 30 men) this month with guys up from AAA and AA has helped the mood on the bench," says Rose, who, frankly, would like to see the Phillies become even more manic and emotive. "They're crazy and excited. They can't wait just to go in to pinch-run."

The Phils, who are busy getting into themselves, have finally (perhaps) learned how to stop playing with one ear cocked toward their hypercritical fans. On Friday here, the crowd became excited just before, during and long after McBride's homer -- even calling the fellow with the huge Afro, gold-capped teeth and shy smile out of the dugout for a standing ovation. When asked after the game if the crowd's reaction might be a positive Phillie factor, Mike Schmidt said, "I wouldn't give this crowd credit for anything, not even if they deserved it. It's unbelieveable the guys on this team that they boo. They're not helping us much, never have, and I'd hate to see them get credit."

Among those booed here are durable, but slumping, catcher Bob Boone (.230), slugger Greg Luzinski, who simply isn't The Bull of old and hasn't been for two years, and even light-hitting Larry Bowa. Perhaps a mark of how far the Phils still have to go in the matter of team attitude can be seen in one pointed Rose thorn: "I don't mind the fans booing. Most of the time, I think it helps when somebody gets on 'em. Course, maybe I'm not the one to talk, 'cause I've never been booed in a (home) white uniform."

The flip side of that marvelous commodity -- enthusiasm -- is a tendency among excitable clubs to try too hard in pennant-race wars. It has been Phillie pitching, not Phillie hitting, that has been the September key. "I see guys on our team and the Expos going to the plate too pumped up," says Schmidt. "It's hard to keep from trying to juice every pitch. That's why you see so many towering popups this time of year. Everybody swings from their rear and gets under the pitch they ought to be hitting hard."

Still, the Phils' latest change of team mood is, thus far, a welcome and pleasant one. The Phillies, who have never won a world title, were born in '76. That's 1876. It's taken them a while, but, at last, some of that "Spirit of '76" may be rubbed off.