"I'd like to pitch and draw my pension at the same time." -- Jim Kaat, St. Louis Cardinals

Few ballplayers remain competitive long enough to become as mature, polished and confident off the field as they are on it.

Among those who do have long careers, few arrive at athletic old age, and chronological middle age, with their dispositions still fresh, their enthusiasm intact and a minimum of residual bitterness.

Jim Kaat, the second-oldest player to appear in a World Series game, is one of the graceful few who have beaten age, bitterness, even their own vanities and insecurities.

When the St. Louis Cardinal left-hander, who will be 44 in three weeks, took the mound on Tuesday night to work a shutout inning and a third, he was more than just a man who had won 282 major league games, more than the first in history to pitch in the bigs for 24 seasons.

Kaat, who first entered the major leagues with the Washington Senators in 1959, was a fellow who, in his quarter-century in the game, seems to have drawn many of the best qualities of his sport to himself. He is proud, yet modest. Funny, but in a gentle, wry way. He steals no one's dignity, yet retains his own. He is a genuine "grown" man who does not look in the least foolish when he stoops to play a boy's game.

At a mass press conference today, Kaat got the sort of forum he has deserved for years, but has never gotten--not even in 1965, when he pitched the Minnesota Twins into the World Series. The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder, who is in trimmer shape than many a rookie, showed the agility on a podium in fielding questions that won him 16 Gold Glove awards.

How do you pitch the Brewers?

"The same way you pitched to Ted Williams. Low and behind."

Is your contract up at the end of the year?

"My contract is up at the end of every year . . . Remember, I used to play for Calvin (Griffith). Those were 30-day contracts."

How long will you play?

"I'm going to try to make it through tonight . . . The older you get, the less chances you are given to fail. I think I have that pretty well in perspective. Whitey (Manager Whitey Herzog) has offered me a contract for next year."

Do you belong in the Hall of Fame?

"I'd be overly modest if I said no. However, right now, I'm in the Hall of Enjoyment.

"Maybe there ought to be a Hall of Achievement for players who did quite a bit, but were not so famous because they weren't in many World Series . . .

"If the standards (of the Hall of Fame) keep getting diluted, you can't tell . . . My statistics are somewhat misleading. Some of my numbers are up in the same category as people like Bob Gibson. But I'm not in that class . . . I think of a Hall of Fame pitcher as Sandy Koufax or Whitey Ford. I don't look at myself as a Hall of Fame pitcher . . . I take pride in being a survivor."

Why are there now so many good older players? Better conditioning?

"No, it's because those of us who came along when I did are a lot poorer. The economics of baseball have changed. When I came up, veterans like Elmer Valo or Wally Post were making $20,000 to $25,000. They could probably do that well outside baseball. Now, a part-time role player, like myself, can do much better in the game than out."

After a season in which he worked in 62 games, with a 5-3 record and a couple of saves, he still looks valuable. If his career ever comes to an end, Kaat wants to be a pitching coach, like his mentors, Eddie Lopat and Johnny Sain, or a broadcaster.

For the time being, Kaat is a better thing: a man who embodies a philosophy.

"You can't pitch or play scared," Kaat said today. "Just run it down their throats and take your chances."