The scar is so big that it's hard to believe it seldom is visible in Rick Cerone's photographs. Almost as wide and long as a little finger, it starts barely half an inch from the corner of the New York Yankee catcher's left eye, then disappears into his curly black hair above the temple.

"I almost died," says Cerone, matter of factly. "I was 18 and went through a windshield. Two arteries were severed. The blood was pouring everywhere. I never lost consciousness. It took 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. It felt like 20 hours. They called my father and asked him for permission to do whatever surgery was necessary. He started to ask some question about the accident and they told him there was no time to explain anything, that I might bleed to death and just to say, 'Yes.'

"Normally, it would have taken 50 or 60 stitches to close a cut like that, but there was no time to be neat. They just put five huge stitches in it. That's why the scar is so big."

Cerone, now 27, thinks back on the 20 minutes when he almost died, when his hands were over his face and he was trying to stop the bleeding with his fingers. When, at the least, he came within half an inch of being blind in one eye. Cerone tries to sum it all up.

"I was a little scared," he says.

That, perhaps, helps explain why Cerone seems so preternaturally calm these days with circumstances that would make most major leaguers blanch.

For the past month, he has received a steady succession of death threats. He is under around-the-clock police protection; a detective friend stays the night at Cerone's place. Even Cerone's parents have had a threatening call.

Cerone's reaction to the "I'll get you . . . you're next" messages -- which have included letters, phone calls and telegrams -- was to check at the desk of each hotel where the Yankees stayed on the road and casually ask, "Any mail for Mr. Cerone?"

Compounding Cerone's aggravation has been a miserable season in which he has battled with team owner George Steinbrenner and American League pitchers. The fight with Steinbrenner centers around Cerone's fiery insistence this spring on taking Steinbrenner to salary arbitration, rejecting the boss' offer of $330,000 a year, demanding $440,000 and, to Steinbrenner's profound and lasting disgust, winning.

"Nobody takes me to arbitration," fumes Steinbrenner. "That's like telling me to my face that I'm not fair to my employes. And I am. I pay top dollar and I don't appreciate being insulted."

"George is too touchy," says Cerone.

When Cerone, who hit .277 with 14 homers and 85 RBI in 1980, slumped this season to .244 with two homers and 21 RBI in 234 at bats, Steinbrenner resumed his offensive, saying Cerone was "spending too much time in discos" and "believing all that stuff about being a New York sex symbol."

It's true that Yankee announcer Phil Rizzuto calls Cerone "the Italian Stallion," and it's true that bachelor Cerone endorses "10" jeans -- a brand that wanted Bo Derek to be its "10" but settled for a short, dark and handsome catcher with that number.

However, what really bothers Cerone is that his statistics this year are so similar to those in his 1978 and '79 seasons in Toronto. Was 1980 really the aberration and this season the norm?

Charlie Lau, the Yankee batting instructor, who oversaw the rebuilding of Cerone's way of hitting in 1980, won't single out Cerone for criticism, but does say, "We have had a couple of guys this year who didn't work as hard on their hitting as I'd have liked." The Yankee consensus is that this small group includes Cerone.

Cerone, who was an academic all-America as a senior majoring in physical education at Seton Hall in 1975, got the final blow Saturday night when he was the goat of the Yankees' Game 4 loss to Milkwaukee in the miniseries. He not only made a horrid base running boner but struck out to end the game with the tying run on third.

Steinbrenner raged in the locker room, clearly specifying Cerone, although not by name, as the sort of culprit who was an "overpaid fat cat" and "didn't deserve to be a Yankee" and, if sins weren't amended instantly, would "be someplace else next year."

Many men would have taken the insults, just as, for instance, veteran Bob Watson had taken 100 extra ground balls before the game because Steinbrenner, in a pique, ordered it.

Instead, Cerone said, "Curse you, George. You never played the game and you don't know what you're talking about."

"That's it," retorted Steinbrenner. "You're gone."

To which Cerone responded with an even more imaginative, and unprintable insult.

"I was worried about a fist fight," admitted Reggie Jackson.

With that one incident, Cerone went from being a respected member of a veteran team to one of its undisputed leaders. The next day, according to Cerone, "Almost every veteran on the team sought me out to encourage me."

Steinbrenner, in an admission of sorts that Cerone was important to his team, sent Cerone a pregame note, excusing him for "your vulgarities toward me" and assuring the catcher that their spat "would not affect the future."

Cerone, asked if he had any apologies to make, said, "No apologies are needed." Asked if he had any regrets, Cerone said, "None . . . except that I rounded first base too far."

That day, in what Cerone says now, "could have been my last game as a Yankee," New York beat Milwaukee, 7-3, with Cerone driving in what proved to be the winning run, and then hitting a home run.

"As I rounded third," said Cerone, "I was tempted to tip my hat toward the owner's box. But I didn't. I don't show up my pitchers or my teammates, and I wouldn't show up my owner. He pays the bills. He has his rights."

"Cerone showed me a lot of guts," said Jackson. "He's a good pressure kid, on the field and off."

Cerone and Graig Nettles, in resisting Steinbrenner's bullying, have earned nicknames. Nettles is "Fido" and Cerone is "Bowzer," since they are the most prominent members of Steinbrenner's doghouse.

"That scar kind of contributes to Cerone's image, doesn't it?" says Nettles, admiringly. "Bowzer looks like a pretty hard guy."

On a team with its share of lickspittles -- Billy Martin calls the Yankee clubhouse informers "George's CIA" -- Nettles and Cerone are indeed the intransigent hard guys. They take the owner's money, but they don't take his guff. If they get shipped out, so be it.

Cerone may be a hard guy on the field, climbing backstops or sliding into them to make catches during the Milwaukee series, but he is not a hard person.

Baseball players show their natures in strange ways. Four years ago, when he was with Toronto, Cerone noticed one day that a 5-foot-7 bush league infielder, up from AA for a one-day lark of working out with the big league club, was scampering everywhere during batting practice, relishing his one and, as it proved, only day on a major league field.

Cerone noticed that the player's feet were as tiny as his own, so, he had a thought.

"I didn't really know Cerone, but he called me over," recalls Hunt (Runt) Mitchell, then a career minor leaguer, now a Washington area investment counselor. "He gave me a pair of his shoes. I've still got 'em."

"Oh, sure, I remember Mitchell," said Cerone. "Say hello to him for me."

Rick Cerone, you see, saves his insults for millionaires.