At first sight, you know what a baseball was meant for. Of all the objects made by man and nature, perhaps none fits in the hand with such self-evident purpose. It was created to be thrown. fPreferably, very hard.

Rich (Goose) Gossage never forgets that, although, sometimes, the New York Yankees wish he would. When Gossage sees a baseball, he begins to change. His puffy, pussycat face, which has a wispy, playful, almost zonked-out serenity during the 99 percent of his life when his foot is not in contact with a pitching rubber, is suddenly transformed when he feels seams under his fingertips and smooth horsehide along the breadth of his palm.

"When Goose is on the mound, even during batting practice in spring training, he just gets all worked up," says Graig Nettles.

Gossage tries to be calm and friendly. He threw hittable pitches to his teammates in those slow Fort Lauderdale days. But, in a slim twinkling, the chemistry inside his 6-foot-3, 217-pound body changes.

"When I see a bag full of baseballs, I just seem to go crazy," says Gossage with a wonderful leer. "I start throwing them and I can't stop till I've thrown 'em all. I mean, they're just sitting there in the bag and I want to throw each one harder than the lat one."

That's how Gossage's relief work has appeared this season to the American League's pathetic hitters -- as though each pitch were harder than the last. The lowest ERA in the major leagues does not belong to the Dodgers' phenomental Fernando Valenzuela (0.50), but to the Goose (0.49). The short man with the game's fastest ball has entered a dozen games in '81 and has 10 saves, plus a victory. In 18 1/3 innings, this master of goose eggs has allowed only eight hits and four walks and has struck out 26.

Among baseball's great pitchers of the last 20 years, Gossage's place in the game's history is marked by one fact: in a true crunch, Gossage is the only one who always throws fast balls, and only fast balls. "I've got a pretty good slider," he says, "but in the kind of situations when I work, if I got beaten on any pitch but a fast ball, I'd want to shoot myself."

Any one of the millions who have had a baseball period in life knows the uplift in selfesteem that is attendant upon an honest fast ball. The pitch that once had the soft arc of childhood suddenly has the flat, hard buzz of adolescence. Comes a time when it seems the whole body can be twisted and coiled, then whirled and sprung so that, for an instant, flinging a fast ball that carves the plate and cracks the catcher's glove is like delivering a 60-foot punch with a fist of stone.

That's why strikeouts are called punchouts.

And that's why Gossage is the king of the punchout artists.

If the run-of-the-mill 70-mph high school pitch is a kick that old men remember, then what must a 100-mph fast ball be like? What powerful hold must it have on the innards of the man who owns it?

In Gossage's case, the pitch owns him completely and controls the cycles of his life. All his lazy, mischievous, slow-motion hours off the mound seem like some vast storing up of strength and adrenaline, as though a volcano could hum. All his locker-room lack of intensity, his passive acceptance of wisecracks aimed at his hairline or his waistline, is a willed repression of response that spells danger for hitters.

"When I cross the white lines, something clicks in me. I change. If a game, say in spring training, doesn't mean anything, nothing happens in me and I've got nothing. Anybody can hit me," Gossage says, with some exaggeration. "But, when I'm in a corner, I say, 'Well, this is it," and I take a deep breath.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm just going to blow up. I feel like no one can hit me. It's unbelieveable how confident I feel. I turn mean. If my wife came out and looked in my eyes, she'd say, 'Who's this guy?'"

In the word of Stan Williams, Yankee pitching coach, Gossage becomes "prehistoric." Instead of the modest, balding Goose of the locker room, he becomes the predatory pterodactyl of his hill. To those who face him, he must seem like that movie monster from the Mesozoic -- Rodan.

hOnly such exaggeration is adequate for Gossage. All fast ball pitchers have a certain over burden of the symbolic; not even home run hitters are as powerful drawing cards as pitchers with wall-to-wall heat. Yet, even among that aristocracy of recent flame throwers -- Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard and one or two others -- Gossage is unique. His style, his mound presence, everything about him bespeaks speed, meance and danger.

Ryan has a classic, economical delivery out of which the ball explodes without any particular show of effort. Richard, when healthy, was a 6-foot-8, 250-pound man who, if anything, seemed to try to rein himself in a hair for the sake of control. Gossage looks like he is trying to throw his arm off -- rip it out of his shoulder and fling it to the plate -- on every pitch.

"Goose is the only pitcher I've ever seen who is completely uninhibited at the second when he releases the ball," says Yankee Ron Davis.

In the minors, at Appleton, Wis., Gossage tried to break off a curve and heaved the ball into the opposing team's dugout. "I couldn't tell you what their faces looked like," recalls Gossage, then 19, now 29, "but one of their coaches wore a batting helmet in the dugout for the rest of the game."

Then Gossage could miss his target by 50-feet. Now, he's improved. Sort of Last week against Oakland and American League home run leader Tony Armas, Gossage unleashed a terrifying thing that took its first bounce 10 feed short of the plate and five feet outside the opposite batter's box. The pitch missed the on-deck hitter by inches.

"My cleats got caught," said Gossage, sheepishly, after the game.

What went through Gossage's mind? Embarassment?

Gossage grinned: "I thought, 'Now he knows I got no idea where it's going''"

Actually, these days, Gossage almost always knows where it's going. It's likely that the Goose is at the apogee of his career at this hour. He doubts it, insisting, "I'm not at my peak yet." However, the stats disagree. At present, Gossage is only the shortest of steps away from relief perfection.

Since mid-August of 1979, when he finally recovered from the 12 weeks of thumb injury rehabilitation after his famous shower room rumble with Cliff Johnson, Gossage has been summoned in 59 "save situations." And he has saved the game 55 times. That's 93 percent. In addition, Gossage has won 11 games while only losing three in that span with a 1.81 ERA, 159 strikeouts and just 47 walks in 152 innings.

In simplest terms, over a period of more than 250 Yankee games, he has been summoned over 100 times; he's lost three games, while winning or saving 66.

How is this any different, you say, from the legenday Gossage of '75 (1.84 ERA with the White Sox) or '77 (1.62 with Pittsburgh) or '78 (2.01 with N.Y.)?

The difference isn't in Gossage at his best. Then, as now, he could come in needing seven outs and get six on strikes, as he did against Oakland last Thursday.

The change is in Gossage at his worst. In his three great seasons of '75, '77 and '78, Gossage lost 28 games. Too many. And too often, Gossage's worst fits of wildness -- his overdose of adrenaline -- came in the biggest games, when his exaggerated delivery, always on the edge of pitching madness, truly became insane.

Gossage pitched in the All-Star Game in each of those three years; each time he was shelled, allowing seven runs in three innings for an ERA of 21.00. The prototypical moment came in the '78 game, when his first pitch was a run-scoring wild pitch and he was the eventual loser.

Ironically, Gossage's occasional susceptibility to imploding under the greatest pressure may have been cured forever at the moment (if there were a machine to measure such things) of greatest tension in the history of baseball. Yes, the Gossage versus Carl Yuastrzemski confrontation to end the '78 playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox.

Surely this was one of the greatest games every played. And, since that day, Gossage's record under pressure has done a dramatic turnaround. Let him retell it; if this isn't a cathartic moment, what is?

"We flew in there and it was a clear, cold, beautiful autumn day. . . There was no time for hype. . . Both teams were happy to be there after everything we'd both been through all season and we just looked at each other and said, 'Let's get it on." But, you know, a lotta guys said afterward that when the teams were warming up they thought two things -- 'How incredible is this . . . a one-game season,' and, 'How sad that somebody's going to lose.'

"I never felt so much pressure in my life. It built the whole day . . . You couldn't deny it.

"When I came in from the bullpen, my legs were shaking. I'm standing on the mound and my knees are knocking for the first time since the minors. I said, 'What's going?' I thought for a minute and it came to me: The worst thing that can happen to you is that tomorrow you'll be home in Colorado skiing.'

"After that, I was all right. Even the playoffs and Series felt like a piece of cake," says Gossage, who promptly won a playoff game, saved the pennant clincher against Kansas City, then had a 0.00 ERA in three Series appearances, including the clincher.

Since October of '78, everything -- with the exception of Cliff Johnson and one great swing by George Brett in the '80 playoffs -- has been a piece of cake for Gossage.

"I could always throw," says the Darth Vader of the bullpen. "But now I do have an idea out there, even if it doesn't look like it.

"Nothing bothers me out there anymore. I never wonder about tomorrow."

And because they have Gossage, neither do the New York Yankees.