For 38 years, man and boy -- and now, as silver eminence -- Gene Mauch has played, managed and loved the game for the game itself.

Whether he was taking an outfielder and making him a fifth infielder, or issuing an intentional walk with first base occupied, or putting on the suicide squeeze with his cleanup hitter, Mauch's passion for baseball has been primed by a more elevated concept than victory.

Oh, he's burned to win; he's broken clubhouse furniture and thrown more trays of cold cuts against the locker room wall than any other manager of his era.

But above all, Mauch always has meditated upon the game, believed it was worthy of being the consuming passion of a first-rate mind. To him, baseball is the head game.

As a result, Mauch is the only manager in major-league baseball who always pauses to think before he speaks. You can almost see his brain editing words down to their FOCUS clipped, cryptic nub. Every sentence must be part of the canon.

"That doesn't fit in with my ideal idea of the game," says Mauch when a notion is proposed that strikes him wrong. "I'm not comfortable with that."

For 22 years, this approach has unsettled other baseball men. Mauch's apparent arrogance, combined with his perplexing record of turning out fourth-place teams, has made him the most mysterious, most argued-about manager in the game.

Strange, almost perverse, how one week can change the perception of a man's lifelong odyssey. Only seven days ago, Mauch was still the smartest manager who'd never won anything.

Now, his California Angels have clinched the American League West title and, after winning the first two games of their playoff with Milwaukee, could be only hours away from a pennant, too. If the Angels win in Milwaukee on Friday at 3:15 p.m. (WJLA-TV-7), then California will finally be in a World Series. And, in another week or so, given the inauspicious nature of the National League's division winners, the Angels also could be world champions.

So, in less time than it took Mauch's 1964 Phillies to lose 10 games in a row and complete the worst squandering of a pennant on record, Mauch may win a division and pennant and be on his way to a Series victory.

It's always bothered Mauch that he has had to share the opprobrium attendant on his teams' persistent failures -- 20 finishes of fourth place or lower in 22 seasons. Mauch knew that, in baseball parlance, he'd usually finished ahead of his teams. If they were bad, they'd probably have been even worse without him.

Now it annoys Mauch that this season's success is being interpreted as an exoneration of unnamed past sins. For a man who has made a career of bringing fifth-place clubs home fourth, and getting criticized in the process, it's hard to swallow praise for managing a first-place team into first place.

In Mauch's eyes, the praise he is receiving now is as cheap, as ignorant of the facts, as the gainsaying he has endured for years. Either Mauch's been doing it right all along, or he hasn't. These Angels don't change the past. "I've got so many horses," he said this week, "that I've just hitched 'em up and gone along for the ride."

Many are surprised Mauch isn't having a good time; he's testy and abrupt. Questions about that old Phillie foolishness bring a look to his eyes that make everyone within kill range glad that machine guns aren't allowed in dugouts.

What's forgotten is that this handsome steel-gray man with the level gaze, the cryptic habits of speech, the barely suppressed temper and the blade-edged wit has lived in a sort of purgatory ever since his Phillie ship went down. He has carried the memory, flaring at any mention of The Fold, like a shamed captain who has ignobly survived a wreck in which all other hands were lost.

A world championship may take other Angels to heaven, but not Mauch; he knows there's modest credit at best for managing such a gaudy crew. What he desperately wants is to avoid the hell of another ship foundering under him.

Actually, the Mauch of 1982 is no different than the Mauch of any other year. He's still the same old pick-a-side-and-argue-a-while puzzle. The man's either ahead of everybody else, or he's outsmarted himself again.

Mauch is still jeopardizing potentially big innings with early-inning bunts. He's still juggling his lineup almost every day, running the risk of confusing his players by batting them all in a half-dozen positions in the order. He's still a master of impatience in dealing with a pitching staff. Mauch sticks with a hot pitcher, even if it risks burning him out, while losing confidence in those who are slumping; they are quickly consigned to roles in which they can't contaminate the proceedings.

This year, the power-laden Angels led the league, again, in sacrifices (114). This leads other managers, like Baltimore's Earl Weaver, to chortle about how the man who plays for one run ends up losing by one run.

Game 2 of the American League championship series was an example. With the bases loaded in the second inning and one out, and with the Angels leading, 1-0, Mauch had Bob Boone squeeze home a run with a bunt. Then, in the fourth inning, with two on and none out, Mauch had Tim Foli attempt a sacrifice bunt. Of two rallies in which five men were on base against a struggling pitcher with only one out, Mauch managed to get two runs.

Did this strategy win the game, since California triumphed, 4-2?

Or did Mauch help defuse two potential blowout innings and thus help Pete Vuckovich remain on the mound and pitch a complete game?

Mauch says, "We play 'Little Ball' at the bottom of the order, but we play 'Big Ball' in the middle of the order with home runs . . . I appreciate execution, whether it's Foli bunting or Reggie (Jackson) hitting a homer."

The Angels' lineup is Mauch's perverse passion. "In my heart, I don't know the true lineup of the California Angels," he has said. Even that is understatement. Mauch has changed his lineup more than 70 times this year and some call this making a Mauchery of your lineup. Some call it genius.

Mauch gets uniformly high marks for bringing the Angels' get-no-respect pitching staff home with the second-best ERA in the AL. He had a hand in changing the deliveries of Bruce Kison, Ed Witt and Ken Forsch in spring training, helping them hold runners closer to first. He understood that older pitchers like Forsch and Geoff Zahn (18-8) would follow an ancient pattern of going from great to poor back to good as the hot summer defeated them and the cool autumn restored them.

Whether teaching Zahn a slider or making Luis Sanchez a bullpen ace, Mauch has felt as free to demand that his pitchers try something new as he has been hands-off with his proven stars.

"If there's one thing that drives me crazy," he says, a flash of anger showing, "it's a guy who says, 'I've always done it this way.' Yeah, I can see that. That's probably why you're still a .250 hitter or a .500 pitcher. Why don't we try something new? We can always go back to that."

Finally, with age, Mauch, 56, has become an adept stroker of egos. Doug DeCinces, hypersensitive to Weaver's habit of barking and grumping, has blossomed under Mauch's praise/flattery. Jackson loves to be consulted on cerebral matters; Bobby Grich likes how-does-your-back-feel-today meetings; Rod Carew craves affection; fragile Fred Lynn wants some days off without being bad-mouthed.

Mauch, since he genuinely admires such "special people" and might even be a little star-struck, can keep this gang happy.

An extra bonus is that the famous Angels are rich and confident enough to tease Mauch, cracking his flinty exterior and showing the fine fellow inside. "Nobody beats us," mimics Jackson, flexing every muscle in his neck, a la Mauch and cocking his head at a crazy-captain angle, "when we put our 'A' game on the field."

"I don't think I have ever felt pressure in baseball, not after all the years I've been in uniform," Mauch said. "Unless, maybe, pressure is the emotion that I get when I think of the people who care about me and how they'll feel if we lose. I don't lead the world in friends, but I have enough so that I don't want them disappointed."