The Milwaukee Brewers are on the verge of gaining a spot in the American League playoffs for the first time ever, so Gorman Thomas will have to delay his annual retreat to the Wisconsin woods to go hunting.

It may be just as well.

Thomas, the Brewers' slugging center fielder, hunts about the way he plays the outfield, where his philosophy is, "If the walls get in the way that's their fault, not mine."

So it came to be that when the shaggy-haired South Carolinian made his first Wisconsin deer hunt with teammate Jim Gantner, Thomas showed up with a pistol on one hip and a big knife on the other and demanded, "Where's the dogs?"

This gave Gantner, a Wisconsin native who regards deer hunting as a silent sport of man and rifle alone in the woods, a good chuckle.

Gantner explained the differences to the garrulous newcomer and showed him to a place in the woods where Thomas could stand and wait for a whitetail to happen by.

As he was leaving, Gantner noticed an old, rotted-out hunting stand about 40 feet up in a nearby tree. It had been vacant so long the steps to it were gone, and there wasn't a single low limb to climb on.

"I said to my other buddy, 'I bet we're not 30 yards from here before Gorman sees that and tries to climb it.' " Half right. Thomas didn't just try, he climbed it, dragging his rifle up with a rope, and sat still on one rotten board all morning.

"Yeah," boomed Thomas, proudly. "I shinnied up that tree."

It was a typical feat for Thomas, who with his curly, dark mane and permanent stubble of a beard looks like one of the Three Musketeers after a bad weekend, or a refugee from "Deliverance."

Thomas can look any way he wants as far as the Brewers are concerned. He's earned the right over the past five years, during which he has held down the middle of the Milwaukee defense while quietly hitting more home runs (175) than anyone else in the American League. More than Reggie Jackson. More than Jim Rice. More than anybody.

Not bad for a guy who wasn't planning to play baseball when he got out of high school in Charleston. He was going to go to Florida State as a 6-foot-3, 200-pound running back when the Brewers' predecessors, the Seattle Pilots, drafted him.

Harvey Kuenn, now the Brewers' manager, remembers Thomas' first appearance in camp in 1970. "I watched him walk down the hill in Tempe, Ariz., without any shoes on, coming through rocks and broken glass. He was just a raw kid from Carolina, but he came to put the uniform on."

But it took time. It wasn't until 1978, after two disappointing years in the majors and another season of clobbering AAA pitching in Spokane (1977: .322 average, 36 homers), that Thomas got a shot at playing every day in the big leagues, thanks to George Bamberger.

"I walked in the first day of spring training with my long hair," Thomas recollected the other day in the Brewers' clubhouse in Boston. "Bambi looked at me and said, 'Who the hell are you?'

"I said, 'Who the hell are you?'

"He said, 'I'm George Bamberger, the manager.'

"I said, 'Oh. I'm Gorman Thomas.'

"He said, 'Well you're my center fielder. You got it. Now just don't lose it."

It was all Thomas needed. Where as a fill-in man he'd taken his duties lightly, staying out all night before games and showing up 20 minutes before the national anthem, as a regular he became a clubhouse rat.

These days, as he has for the past five years, Thomas turns up at the ballpark as much as 6 1/2 hours before game time to play cards, organize games of "flip" behind the batter's cage and playfully harass his mates.

Strikeouts, homers and practical jokes have been Thomas' trademarks. He led the league in whiffs in 1979 (175) and 1980 (170), but in those two years he also had 83 homers and 228 RBI. This year, he already has 39 homers, 112 RBI and 138 strikeouts.

The Brewers will need all of Thomas' best should they make the playoffs. If they keep on winning, they might even provide a forum for the American League's best home run hitter to emerge from the shadows of obscurity.

Right now, Thomas says Milwaukeeans he meets ask him, "Aren't you that new relief pitcher they brought up?"

Thomas sipped his coffee and wondered, "You think that stuff happens to Reggie Jackson?"