Baseball players have a name for what Garry Templeton did on the afternoon of Aug. 26, 1981. They call it flipping off the crowd. Whitey Herzog, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, called it the most disgraceful thing he had ever seen in baseball. Templeton now says, "It was a cry for help to get me out of the damn city."

He plays shortstop for the San Diego Padres now. He is working hard, ranging right and left, trying to make people forget how deep in the hole he had gone. "It's something I have to live with," he said. "It's something I did . . . I hope people will forget, but I don't think so."

Videotapes don't forget. They showed Templeton twice making obscene gestures toward people in the stands, being ejected by the umpire, being hauled off the field by his manager. They failed to show Templeton being showered by ice and racial epithets, his agent said. "It became national news that he gave the finger to seven guys who were throwing ice and calling him nigger," said Richard Bry.

"They called me more things than that," Templeton said.

He wants this understood. "I actually didn't do it to the whole stadium. I did it to some people over the dugout," who said they were going "to come down and fight me. They turned around and said I flipped off everybody. It's hard to justify yourself when they said you flipped off all of St. Louis."

But it's too late to regret it, he said. "I made a mistake. It could have hampered my career. Maybe it was the best thing. I got the opportunity to get out of the city, to start anew. I'm happy. San Diego is happy. St. Louis is happy."

For some, Templeton became a symbol of the growing alienation between fans and the high-priced athletes whose salaries they help pay. You could almost hear them say, "See what happens when you give them all that money? Something has to be done."

For others, like Rich Koster, columnist for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Templeton was a "great example of a society that takes a young man, gives him a lot of money and expects him to be mature when all he is rich (he earns about $660,000 a year) and talented."

And troubled. The sports world is not comfortable with mental frailties in the physical elite. Ballard Smith, president of the Padres, says he never thought athletes "wouldn't have some problems . . . The management in St. Louis probably didn't treat him the same way we would treat him."

Dick Williams, the Padres' manager, says, "He has given a total effort. He is liked by all his teammates and the staff . . . He has set an example for how you're supposed to be."

For Templeton, the afternoon of Aug. 26 was a breaking point and a turning point. Like summer heat, tensions had been building a long time. Templeton wanted out. That was no secret. He turned off the hometown when he skipped the 1979 All-Star Game, saying: "If I ain't startin,' I ain't departin'."

"I did little things that were not important and they built it up so much I got labeled as controversial," said Templeton, 26. "It's been with me throughout my career."

As have great expectations. Herzog says Templeton is "the greatest player, in terms of talent, I ever managed," including George Brett. Bing Devine, former Cardinal general manager, said, "He has more overall, all-around talent than any ballplayer I've ever seen. I'm not saying he's played that well."

An example of greatness: recently, in a game in Philadelphia, he went five steps to his left, dived for a ball, almost beat the lead runner to second, and still threw out the batter, Bob Dernier, one of the fastest men in baseball.

That potential is why people in St. Louis found him perplexing, then infuriating. "First he said he doesn't want to play in St. Louis, or doubleheaders, or day games after night games or in the rain," Herzog said. "That's exactly how it was."

Templeton said, "They always thought I was loafing. It's just the way I play, that smooth . . . After five or six years, you'd think they would grow to understand the way I play: fluid."

"They said I didn't want to play here, or there, that type of situation," he added later. "How can you say that about somebody when you look at the record?"

He is a lifetime .305 hitter, has led the league in hits and errors at his position, and was the first switch hitter to get 100 hits from both sides. "I thought they should do more for me," he said. "But instead they were always putting me down. It ate at me so long, I did what I did . . . It was a combination of things that happened over a period of years. I finally said, 'Hey, forget it all.' "

Baseball is a language as well as a game. Any linguist knows you don't bother to develop a special expression for something unless it's going to get some use. "I wasn't the first to flip somebody off," Templeton says. "Other guys do it, they just don't get caught."

Ted Williams made his feelings known to the crowd. Cesar Cedeno, now with the Cincinnati Reds, went into the stands last year after a fan taunted him about his involuntary manslaughter conviction. Herzog does not discount the possibility that fans taunted Templeton with racial slurs but says, "Sometimes you have to bite the bullet."

Templeton thinks St. Louis fans "have been looking for a white hope for years."

Smith agrees there were racial overtones "but not because it was in St. Louis . . . Baseball probably doesn't have the best history with dealing with blacks."

Templeton says, "There ain't much happening in that city. Any little thing, they got to blow it up, so they get some national attention . . . They just blew it up so much, then they had to do something about it . . .To be honest, when I did it I didn't think anything of it."

Herzog did. He fined and suspended Templeton and said he could not return until he apologized to the city and the team. The $5,000 fine, yet unpaid, is being contested by the players association. "The bad thing about the situation is that the league or the commissioner's office didn't act on it. I was the only one who acted," Herzog said.

"You're supposed to let a ballplayer give the finger to 13,000 fans, grab the family jewels?" he added. "That's supposed to be okay? It wasn't that he had done it once. He had been warned by the umpire."

There is no doubt in Herzog's mind: "He had to be sick to do what he did."

On Aug. 28, Bry announced that Templeton would get professional help. "My only friend was the team doctor," Templeton said. "He came and said he knew it wasn't me. He asked if I wanted to talk to the psychiatrist to see if anything was wrong."

Bry said Templeton was hospitalized from Aug. 31 until Sept. 14, the day before he rejoined the team. Dr. Jay Liss diagnosed Templeton's problem as depression and prescribed antidepressants, which Templeton says he took until last December.

He saw Liss occasionally after that, and two or three times last winter. He says he has not seen him since. "He made me think more about myself and not everything around you," Templeton said. "That way you can leave a lot of pressure built up inside of you and just concentrate more on yourself instead of your environment . . . I found it helpful. I think he realized there was not a whole lot wrong with me. There was just something I had to get off my mind that built up inside of me."

Like what? "Like I hate St. Louis." he said.

Herzog, who says he actually had a good relationship with Templeton, realized the problems went "back far" when he visited him in the hospital. Gene Tenace, a teammate in St. Louis harshly critical of Templeton last summer, apologized. "We weren't aware of his . . . internal problems he was having that stemmed from childhood. Apparently he carried a lot of things inside him. Once we were aware of the problem, the atmosphere was a lot different."

Templeton says, "Now I think people see my side--I hate to say sympathize--that they (Cardinals) let the situation get that far."

The situation went further. "I went to the hospital and they (people in St. Louis) said it was drugs . . . They started spreading rumors and stuff. If something like it was involved, don't you think the big names would have moved on the situation?"

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's office conducted a hearing to investigate the incident and rumors. "The commissioner's office . . .gave him a clean bill of health," Smith said.

The Baltimore Orioles and Padres vied for Templeton last winter. Hank Peters, Orioles general manager, said, "Based on our investigation, while what he did was very, very wrong, it was nothing that should indict him for the rest of his career."

After speaking with Templeton's psychiatrist, Padres' physicians concluded that no other psychiatric examination was needed. "I didn't know what to expect," Smith said. "At best I thought I would be confronted with a moody person. If Garry has other than good moods, I haven't seen it yet."

The trade, Templeton for Ozzie Smith, was completed Feb. 11. After batting .397 in spring training, Templeton started the season zero for 18. "I have been pressing early," he said. "I wanted to do really well." After 33 games, he was batting .255, with two home runs, 19 RBI.

"My only concern was how my teammates would take to me," he said. "I found they were on my side all the way."

They drink beer around his locker after games. Pitcher Gary Lucas said, "I've seen what he's like . . . and it totally disputes everything I've read."

Templeton had to wonder how the fans would react. "I kind of expected not some kind of resentment but testiness because Ozzie was so well liked," said pitcher John Curtis. "He's been very well received."

From June through August, Templeton will buy 50 box seats for underprivileged kids for each home game. "Templeton never asked any recognition for it," Smith said. "But we're going to make sure he gets it."

Still, Curtis says, the afternoon of Aug. 26 has "created a nagging hangover for Templeton . . . He has forgotten it but unfortunately a lot haven't."

A moment, a gesture, can resonate for a lifetime. Templeton says he is relieved not to have to confront it every day. But it is there and always will be. So, when you ask him the final, logical question: "Is this a happily-ever-after story?" he says, "I don't know. Is it?"