Today, Gene Michael came back contritely to the New York Yankees.

Thursday, Ron Guidry may strip off his pin stripes and depart proudly.

In a move that was, in equal parts, bizarre, humorous and perhaps sad, the Yankees announced that Michael -- who was fired by George Steinbrenner just three months ago -- would return as manager for 1983, 1984 and 1985.

Just one day earlier, the Yankees took the novel step of announcing that their current manager would remain their manager; Bob Lemon was given a one-year-only vote of confidence for the 1982 season. Or, at least, parts thereof. Lemon's deal generally is considered to be a daily contract with hourly options.

Now, in Michael, who will be a roving scout in 1982, the Yankees have anointed an official manager-in-waiting.

"Michael's return was typical of the Yankees," said John Schneider, the lawyer-agent for free agent Guidry. "Steinbrenner seems determined to find every man's price and break his will. He always gives the ultimatums and pulls the strings. Well, on Thursday, someone (Guidry) may finally turn the tables on him.

"We've made it clear that if George doesn't sign Guidry on Thursday, then the Yankees are irrevocably out of the bidding for Ron's services. We are asking $7.5 million for five years," said Schneider. "Perhaps Steinbrenner thinks we're bluffing. That's for us to know and him to find out."

In September, Michael raised eyebrows when, after nearly a full season of enduring meddling-by-the-owner, he stood up to Steinbrenner and said publicly, "If he's going to fire me, let him fire me, but don't keep stringing this thing out."

Now, Michael has learned his lesson about such be-your-own-man independence.

Chain-smoking before a battery of microphones this afternoon at baseball's winter meetings, a tired and chagrined Michael made his public apology to Steinbrenner.

"I'm smarter now," said Michael. "I learned that you can't say some of the things I said and not expect to have problems . . . I think I'll be a more competent manager next time."

In his eight years as lord of the Yankee manor, Steinbrenner has brought three fired managers back into the fold -- Billy Martin, Lemon and Michael. All returned from exile, as Michael did today, in moods of contrition and covered with sackcloth and ashes.

Steinbrenner and Michael conferred twice on Tuesday but Michael declined to tell too many particulars of who offered what and in what sequence. "I'm a little confused in remembering it," said Michael. "I might say it wrong and he'd get it different . . . I know he called me at 8 a.m. and started yelling at me, telling me to 'Get up out of bed.' That's when I knew I must be coming back . . . He told me what he had in mind, and he has a pretty strong mind."

Lemon, who calls himself "just a passenger on George's ship," welcomed Michael back. "So far, I've been the Goose Gossage," said Lemon, meaning that he had been called in late in the '78 and '81 seasons as a relief manager who helped the Yankees into the World Series. "Now, George wants to see if I can go nine innings," added Lemon, who has never lasted a full season as Yankee manager.

Late in the day, Steinbrenner hedged his bets on whether Lemon would last out the full 1982 season. Or last until the second game, for that matter. Steinbrenner added the proviso that Lemon's status would hinge on both "team performance" and "Lem's health."

One day hence, it may be Steinbrenner who is squirming. Guidry is trying his best to repay his boss for all his aggravations over the last eight years. "You wouldn't believe everything Ron has had to swallow," said Schneider today. "Frankly, I'm not sure he wants to remain with the Yankees at any price."

Guidry and Schneider will have one more conference before Thursday's showdown. Schneider, who dropped his Louisiana law practice three years ago and has worked as Guidry's agent full time since, told his client today that, before facing George III he needs unequivocal answers to three questions:

1. If Steinbrenner shocks the world by meeting Guidry's request for the $7.5 million contract, will Guidry accept it, or would he prefer to throw the offer back in Steinbrenner's face for the pleasure of it? "I've known Ron for years," said Schneider,"but I'm not sure what the answer to that one will be."

2. What is Guidry's absolute bottom line. If it isn't $7.5 million, what is it? Schneider admits that if Guidry signs with a team other than the Yankees, it probably will be for a figure closer to $5 million than $7.5. "I won't say that Ron is demanding a million dollars extra because of things that have happened in the past," says Schneider, thereby saying exactly that.

3. And, finally, if Steinbrenner's offer is too low, or if he makes no offer at all, or, most likely, if he refuses to be dictated to and demands that he be allowed to stay in the bidding and match any other team's best offer, will Guidry stand firm in his contention that the Yankees will be dead in the bidding?

If Guidry, after his final deliberation tonight, gives Schneider the answers that the lawyer expects, then George Steinbrenner may be in for one of the most surprising days of his life. For the first time during his tenure as Yankee owner, an employe may publicly defy the boss and actually dictate terms to him.

Baltimore and St. Louis talked twice today, trying to consummate a deal that would send Garry Templeton and Sixto Lezcano to the Orioles. "We were very close at one point, very optimistic," said an Oriole source. However, the Cardinals then broke off the talks, asking for more time to think. The Oriole response was that they would begin to pursue other trade avenues more aggressively since, in General Manager Hank Peters' words, "We don't have a lot of time, and we can't spend it all on one deal."

The Cardinals and Orioles have now met more than 10 times here. "They know who we have, who we want, and what we'll give," said Peters, who in particular, doesn't want to part with speedy minor league center fielder John Shelby. "They just have to make a decision."

Superscout Jim Russo created a minor wave by commenting, "If the season started tomorrow, both Shelby and Cal Ripken would be in the starting lineup."

In trades today:

* Cleveland sent outfielder Jorge Orta and two minor leaguers to Los Angeles for pitcher Rick Sutcliffe and second baseman Jack Perconte.

* Oakland acquired third baseman-outfielder Dan Meyer from Seattle in a deal also involving several minor leaguers.

* Detroit obtained outfielder Larry Herndon from San Francisco for pitcher Dan Schatzeder and a minor leaguer.