In terms they would best understand and appreciate, the managers in the National League playoffs are as contrasting as a sly curve and brushback pitch. If he were not inside those garish Astroknits, Bill Virdon would be almost totally void of outward color. His record almost commands attention, yet he often goes unnoticed in a baseball crowd. Dallas Green has a bullwhip for a tongue and does not mind flogging his Phillies with it in public.

Virdon is a predictable as Green is volatile, so the one-liner Virdon threw out during the dramatic season-ending series with the Dodgers last weekend caught nearly everyone by surprise. One of his ace pitchers, Vern Ruhle, had accidentally slit part of his index finger on a tack while grabbing for a towel and was forced to leave an eventual Dodger victory early when the stitches broke.

The manager's reaction to such a potentially unnerving piece of baseball fate:

"He was trying to develop a split-fingered fast ball."

Virdon's wits have carried him further than his wit, through 739 victories, 594 losses and two firings in nine managerial seasons. He was between Murtaughs in Pittsburgh, replacing Danny in '72 and replaced by him in September '73, and he was the calm before the Billy Martin storm with the Yankee in '74 and the first 104 games of '75.

Seventeen days after the Yanks fired Virdon, the Astros hired him, and he and General Manager Tal Smith transformed a moribund franchise into a consistent winner. The Astros finished 43 games out of first in '75, 22 games back in '76, 17 back in '77 and 21 back in '78. They barely lost the NL West last season and barely won the NL West this season.

Which means Virdon has been both praised and poked at the last two years, for the Astros -- like their manager -- require work to appreciate. Almost none of their virtures are immediately abvious. To anyone who mentions the Astros' underdog role against the Phillies in these playoffs, Virdon quietly says:

"Remember that we won more games than they did this season."

To the harpies who rant at the Astros' lack of power, who chuckle when they remind him that Mike Schmidt hit only 27 fewer homers himself this season than all his players combined, Virdon offers:

"We've hit nine more home runs than our opponents this year. That's an advantage for us. It doesn't matter how many home runs our opponents have against other teams. It's only the one against us that should matter."

The one Greg Luzinski hit Tuesday mattered.

Yet the postgame storm tore not through loser Virdon's clubhouse but through winner Green's. In their fashion, the Astros had played well, offering a national television audience what a Phillie scout had known for months.

"You might not think they can score," Hugh Alexander said, "but all of a the fourth. . . They can hurt you."

The Phils can bludgeon you. And in turn be bludgeoned by their 6-foot-5 manager, perhaps the most brutally candid of anyone at his level in any sport. Unlike nearly all his professional peers -- especially the Virdons -- Green

But the Green giant sometimes is jolly, even when least expected.

Green had gone to extraordinary lenghts to avoid a herd of reporters anxious to coax him into another spicy tirade before the first game Tuesday night, fielding grounders and popups with his players during batting practice instead of questions. Yet, less than an hour before the first pitch, Green held still while an ancient writer he had known for years peppered him with inanities.

"I see you just lost your title as the tallest manager in baseball," the writer said.

Green's head snapped back, but instead of quickly excusing himself, he thought a moment, smiled and then said: "Hey, you're right." Frank Howard being named manager of the Padres the night before had not intruded long in Green's mind.

What dominated his thoughts was a maneuver he and other Phillie executives had pulled earlier in the day that severly stretched a baseball rule without completely breaking it. They had convinced the league and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn that pitcher Nino Espinosa was hurt enough to be replaced by hotshot rookie Marty Bystrom, unbeaten in five decisions but called up from the minors too late to be used in the playoffs under ordinary circumstances.

An unidentified Phillie told columnist Frank Dolson that Espinosa was pressured by the club to tell Kuhn he was unable to pitch because of chronic bursitis in his right shoulder.

"They put it to him," the player said, "that he better agree to go on the disabled list or they'd make it really tough on him, tell scouts (from other teams) that he couldn't pitch any more, things like that. So when the commissioner called and asked him if he was hurt, he was so scared that he had to go along with it."

This was a familiar Phillie fuss, about the zillionth time that an issue that basically involved loyalty had oozed beyond the clubhouse. In his first -- and perhaps last -- year as manager, Green's bottom-line mentality had again stirred his player's anger.

What does a manager owe his players? Private ridicule instead of the torrent of abuse that could be heard for miles behind locked doors but with a dozen reporters outside Aug. 10 in Pittsburgh? A place on the playoff roster for two dedicated, if largely ineffective, players who would be there if the spirit of baseball law was obeyed? Pitcher Randy Lerch also was dropped from the roster.

Of Aug. 10 explosion, Green said: "That was the key time. We went into Chicago, won a game, had the second game suspended, won that on the next day and then swept the Mets. We had played horribly. I let them know about it. aI did a lot of things that career managers would have been shocked at. I didn't care. I wanted to win. That's all I've thought about, winning for the Phillies, for the last 25 years."

Most of that quarter-decade was spent as a journeyman pitcher, who experienced frustrations and indignities similar to Espinosa's, and director of the Phillie farm system. Secure in his future with the team and in his own mind, Green has taken a team that rarely motivated itself under passive Danny Ozark and rattled its collective teeth.

Loyalty? Green might ask. Show me loyalty by playing hard. Every minute of every game. Nino, Green could honestly say, I know about baseball cruelty. I once was sent down to the minors in the middle of a game. Because his self-worth does not require that he be a manager, Green is able to defend his turf with more authority than nearly all his peers. He will walk away from this job -- not be pushed.