On Billy Martin's left ring finger was a long wooden splint.

"It's broken," he said.

On two other fingers -- left pinky and right index -- Martin had bandages.

"Just sprained," he said.

Must have been a combination, right, Billy?

"Just a little accident," said Martin.

Don Quixote tilted at windmills. Martin fights rooms.

On Thursday here, after his A's had allowed six unearned runs in a loss, Martin closed his door and went 10 rounds with his office.

Martin had his fists. The office had pictures, furniture and walls.

The office won.

It was the walls Martin couldn't beat.

After 1 1/2 hours, Martin was still sequestered in the room with his oldest adversary: himself.

The next day, Martin said, "I'm getting smarter as I get older. I finally punched something that couldn't sue me."

Visitors to Martin's office on Friday could find no signs of the battle.

Except that every wall had been repainted.

"He didn't like the color we painted it before," said A's President Roy Eisenhardt.

Perhaps only in Martin's case could the tale of a 54-year-old man trashing a room and breaking his own hand be construed as a sign of progress. This, you see, is the season when Martin is supposed to self-destruct.

History says Martin may soon do something so stupid, so sad in the eyes of those who like him, that the A's will have no choice but to fire him, just as he has been five times before.

After two seasons of brilliant and lucky success, which took him to the cover of national magazines as well as to the playoffs, Martin has watched his team fall apart. To be exact, 56-69 and fifth-place, 16 games behind.

Just what Martin critics predicted has happened. His overworked pitchers have collapsed, driving the A's ERA from second in the AL to next to last in baseball. Nothing kills Billy Ball faster than bad starting pitching.

"I'd love to put on plays all the time," said Martin. "But you can't do that when you're five runs behind . . . When the pitching is bad, nothing in the book works. You sit there with handcuffs on."

In these tormenting straits, Martin has been walking an emotional tightrope for months. And, more than once, he's tottered.

Center fielder Dwayne Murphy, the club's captain and a hustler, was jerked out of a game, then benched, after an error. Catcher Mike Heath had a jawing session with Martin. After defeats, Martin consistently pinpointed exactly who he thought was to blame.

Even Rickey Henderson has been quoted as saying that Martin has to blame somebody for every defeat and the person who's never at fault is Martin.

These, of course, are ancient Martin symptoms.

What's different this time is that Martin may have a safety net under him.

The net's name is Eisenhardt, the president who thinks Martin is too good to lose. When Martin punches the walls, Eisenhardt's there to paint them before the next game. If Martin gets fired, then he's going to have to do all the work himself. For the first time, Martin's boss is mending, not meddling.

One AL owner says, "Eisenhardt has seen the other half of Martin this year . . . Now comes the test of whether they'll be able to coexist."

The former Berkeley law professor and the former Oakland street kid hear these predictions of right-on-schedule doom, but vow that they're wrong.

One story illuminates the relationship.

Martin, sitting in his office, asks Eisenhardt if he wants anything to drink.

"Anything but wine," says Eisenhardt.

"You won't let me forget that, will you?" says Martin.

"It's not everybody whose lady orders a $300 bottle of wine," says Eisenhardt.

"She just has good taste," says Martin of his companion.

"Yes," says Eisenhardt, "but I didn't know she was going to order it for 10 tables. Take Billy Martin to dinner and you get a $3,000 wine bill."

Tolerance is Eisenhardt's trump.

"Baseball defies an orderly progression . . . you can't panic," he says. "You can't measure things at their extremes. You have to accept that it's a game that transcends all our rational attempts to control it . . . So, as an owner, you shouldn't be lax, but you should be supportive."

Translated, this means Eisenhardt knew the A's were lousy when Martin got them and that he worked miracles to get them into the playoffs; therefore, the '82 flop doesn't shock him. "Maybe it was our turn to be awful," he says.

"When we bought this franchise from Charlie Finley, it looked like it had anorexia nervosa."

That's why Eisenhardt's emphasis has been on "building from below . . . that takes time. Meanwhile, Billy has to perform magic with the players he has . . . Billy'd be the first to agree that, at times, he burns too brightly. We've tried to take off the pressure of feeling that winning is the only way we measure his performance."

However, winning is the only way Martin has ever measured himself.

But, he's trying to change. A little. If only by punching walls, not people.

On Martin's wall stands a chart of the A's farm system. It is Eisenhardt's pride and joy. Five of the A's six clubs are in first place.

"Give us three more years," says Martin. "We got some kids down there who can really play baseball."

Three years?

It'll be a long, tough wait. But Martin's trying; this night, he's happy. His A's have just won by a run in the bottom of the ninth on a suicide squeeze bunt. One day after destroying his office, Martin is holding court in it.

"Roy, you know what (utility man) Dave McKay did before the game?" says Martin to Eisenhardt. "He walks through the dugout with all 10 of his fingers taped up . . .in splints."

Martin starts to laugh, his giggle building as he puts his head on his desk. "Then," gasps Martin, looking at his bandaged hands, "McKay says, 'Hey, skip, wanna go bowling tonight?' "

For the second night in a row, Billy Martin has tears in his eyes.