Joe Torre looks like a ballplayer, not a manager.

Even after three hours' sleep last night, a dawn trip to an interview session on the "Today" show and a voyage to the dentist, Manager Torre was fresh and fit tonight, ready for his Braves' successful attempt to lengthen their major league record to 13 straight season-opening wins. They beat Cincinnati, 4-3, on Claudell Washington's single with two out in the ninth.

At 41, the architect of the Braves' streak stands ramrod straight and is trimmer than the 24-year-old who plays third base for him. No worry lines furrow his brow. Instead of dugout pallor he has a tan. He smiles a lot, with reason.

Torre, who spent five disheartening years trying to mold the New York Mets into winners, is suddenly the biggest winner in baseball after just two weeks with perennial second-division Atlanta. How come?

His players say it's because he knows how ballplayers work. He knows they make mistakes and he doesn't berate them when they err.

"He walked in and said, 'Everybody's human, everybody makes mistakes. Just give me 100 percent and I won't say a word,' " said rookie center fielder Brett Butler. "Everybody relaxed."

Added third baseman Bob Horner, "A manager has to command respect. Joe does it. I don't know why, but he does."

Torre played 17 years in the majors, was an all-star nine times, the league's most valuable player once and began managing before he left the field. He knows ballplayers because he was a great one. After 22 years in it, he also knows baseball, the business, and was savvy enough to drive a bargain before he ever started working here.

Torre's successful negotiations for autonomy may be as important to Atlanta's success as his skill handling the players. The Braves have long been victims of meddling by owner Ted Turner, who bought the team in 1976. Torre says it isn't a problem now, and in one swift personnel move early this season he proved it.

Turner's most recent atrocious intrusion was a 1980 public shouting match with Horner when the young third baseman showed up overweight in the spring, failed to hit well and was accused of not hustling. Turner sent him to the minors. Horner refused to go. There was a pitched battle, and bad blood between the two was established.

When Torre came to Atlanta he demanded a three-year contract so he could make his own decisions. He asked for and received a voice in all personnel decisions, and used it to keep the team intact until he could take a long look at his players.

And finally, 10 days into spring training in an unmistakably symbolic act, he named Horner, Turner's nemesis, his team captain.

"I went to spring training and Horner beat me there," said Torre by way of explanation. "It took me 10 days to see what the other players thought of him. I didn't ask, I just watched and listened. He seemed to command respect. I didn't feel like anyone would resent it if I named him, and that's why I did it."

Asked whether he now feels in complete control of the club, Torre said, "I'm running the team. The only calls (from Turner) have been to congratulate." He said he has more control than he ever had in New York, and feels that Turner's burgeoning television enterprises are shifting the owner's interest in the team into a passive mode.

Which suits Torre--who likes to run his own show--just fine.

Although he failed to bring a winner home in New York, Torre left the Mets with the praise of the organization and a reputation good enough to quickly win him at least three offers, including the Braves'.

Claudell Washington, a veteran of the front-running Oakland A's of the mid-'70s, said the difference in the Braves this year is, "We're not getting down if we get behind." He credits Torre for instilling the new confidence and says it will be put to the test "when we break the string and lose a couple. That's when we have to keep our heads up and keep having fun."

For now, fun is exactly what the Braves are having. After victory No. 12, Torre toyed with a foot-long cigar, waiting until the TV cameras shut down before lighting it, and said of the attention being showered upon him, "I love it. I'm not going to pretend I don't have an ego."

Before tonight's game he was again set upon by television reporters and held up to the onslaught, staying bright in spite of his lack of sleep. After Hilary Cosell approached him for an NBC sports interview session, someone mentioned she was ABC sports figure Howard Cosell's daughter.

"Yeah, she does look a little like her mother," said Torre. Then he laughed. "Lucky for her. And you can tell Howard I said that."

The question everyone asks Torre is whether the Braves will now let up, having established the record.

"You can never ease up," he said, summarizing the baseball philosophy that led him to a .297 career batting average. "When I was a player, if I got four hits I wanted five. If I told you I'd be happy now to play .500 ball the rest of the way, I should be fired."

Baseball, said Brooklynite Torre, is like a good fight. "If you have a guy down and you got a good grip on him, do you stop and do this?" He rubbed his hands and spat on them.

"Of course not. You do, he's gone.

"I'll tell you what I want to do. I want to win 162 games."