Only a man who knows as much about business and as little about baseball as George Steinbrenner could fire Dick Howser.

Forcing Howser to resign as New York manager -- and that, nothing less, is what the Yankee owner did this week -- was probably both a crafty business decision and a dumb baseball move. More improtantly, it was an indefensibly ugly display of arrogance and ruthlessness.

Perhaps the time has come to stop making polite jokes about Steinbrenner, letting him off the hook as though he were some harmless J. R. Ewing of baseball -- the bully boy owner everybody enjoys hating.

It is not Steinbrenner's baseball tactics, his checkbook championships, that should bring him criticism. Baseball is just a game, not something worthy of indignation. Steinbrenner has used the murky rules and ill-defined team-building strategies of the free agent era better than any other owner. He is smart, crafty and experienced in the marketplace -- a natural gamesman.

However, the people within baseball are not toys, not pieces in a board game. They deserve to be treated with common decency. That is where Steinbrenner fails.

The underlings Steinbrenner publicly denigrates each season, the career baseball men whom he fires capriciously, the men that he tries to force to kowtow and bootlick in order to keep his Yankee pinstripes and cashing his fat Yankee checks, cannot take off makeup as though they were actors who could step into another character.

The Howser incident is a perfect illustration of Steinbrenner's common, everyday practices within his fiefdom.

Howser took over a fourth-place team that won 89 games in 1979 and finished 10th in the American League in runs scored. He restructured and nursed it and finally brought it home with more victories than any team in baseball in the last four seasons (103).

When the Yankees lost an 11-game lead in the lost column to Baltimore this season, Steinbrenner panicked, thrashing about to place blame and doing his best to demoralize his own club. Howser held the helm steady and showed the world a confident exterior while quelling many a storm in the age-versus-youth Yankee clubhouse. "Howser did a fantastic job with an old beat-up team that should have self-destructed," said on Oriole after the Yankees had won one of the American League's best pennant races.

Throughout those regular season troubles, Howser always sided firmly but sensibly with his players and coaches. "He's the boss," Howser would say, showing allegiance but never sacrificing his won dignity, never bowing and scraping, never implying that the owner truly had his respect.

It was a fine line to walk -- between being owned and truly being bought -- and howser never denied it. "I just couldn't pass up a chance to manage the New York Yankees," said a man who had labored in the baseball vineyard for a quarter-century without ever leaving a ripple. "But I've never had any illusions about the job. I know with George that I have to win or be fired."

But win how much?

As the Yankees were swept by KansasCity in the playoffs, Howser's problems multiplied. As a career baseball man, he knew that the Royals were the better team, and, between the lines of his comments, he came close admitting it. Many Yankees did. And Howser knew Steinbrenner would never admit it.

It is essential to Steinbrenner that he always find a scapegoat, always create the illusion that, if all things were equal, his Yankees could not lose. For eight consecutive seasons, Yankee attendance has risen, something that never happened before in baseball history. The reason is simple.

Steinbrenner treats his team as though it were a Broadway show or a TV sitcom. Titillating the public, providing a new soap opera twist is of paramount importance. Buy yet another free agent. Fire the third base coach. Fire the manager. Then rehire him. Then refire him.

Howser wouldn't go along. The las crisis came when Howser wouldn't acquiesce in letting Steinbrenner make a scapegoat of Coach Mike Ferraro after the second AL playoff game. In Howser's office, Steinbrenner told reporters his views on Ferraro's long-standing incompetence, and Howser quietly contradicted him, pointing out that he himself had coached third base for the Yankees for 10 years and would have done the same thing.

Steinbrenner began a slow burn that would not stop. Howser had to go.

But Howser wouldn't quit. He had to be pushed. The last straw came this month when Steinbrenner fired Ferraro and offered the third base coaching job to Don Zimmer without consulting Howser. No greater usurpation of authority is possible in baseball than tampering with the manager's choice of coaches. A manager who can't pick his own third base coach doesn't have enough authority to pick his own teeth without phoning the owner's box for permission.

All the Yankee charade in recent days -- Steinbrenner claiming that the decision on whether to stay of go as manager was all up to Howser -- was typical deceit. Howser has gone along with the program because he knows that nobody with a grain of baseball sense could be deluded. Also, the new Yankee manager is Howser's old friend, Gene Michael, a former utility man turned yes man.

The Yankees have probably succeeded in stirring pulbic interest, duping Yankee fans into coming out to see what miracles Michael can achieve -- or Dave Winfield or Don Sutton, should the Yankees gobble those free agents soon, too.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the Yankees will have another manager as good as Howser any time soon. He was quality from the first day, and to the last. In the end, however, it doesn't matter a whit whether firing Howser wins the World Series for the Yankees in '81 or sends them to the second division.

Winning isn't everything. In fact, when you treat people they way George Steinbrenner does, it isn't anything at all.