As the ball leaves the bat of pitcher Bob Forsch, Whitey Herzog is the first to know it will be a home run.

Before the ball smacks the beer sign beyond the left field fence, Herzog is already crowing to his world champion St. Louis Cardinals, "You see why I let him hit. I had to talk that man into goin' up there."

When Forsch returns to the bench, Herzog ignores the celebration around his pitcher until, eventually, he catches Forsch's eye.

"What was that?" says Herzog, the picture of boredom. "A home run?"

The next time the pitcher is due to hit, Herzog sends up a pinch hitter, saying to Forsch, "Sit down. I can't stand to watch you hit another one. It's embarrassing to my other players."

Forsch exits and Bruce Sutter enters, throwing his split-finger fast ball. One perfect pitch drops a foot, leaving a young Philadelphia hitter agape.

Herzog can't resist. "Give him that good one now," he snaps at Sutter.

The Cardinals snicker behind their hands. The rookie, perhaps wondering what the good one might look like, takes strike three. The Cardinals laugh out loud.

"Throw like a catcher on that split finger," Herzog reminds Sutter as the reliever reaches the dugout. "Release right from the ear. Don't reach back."

Herzog puts his thumbs in his belt, sticks his confident stomach far out and spits a little Red Man in the red clay before him. Man in his element.

The Phillies put a pitcher with an unlisted uniform number in the game. The Cardinals can't figure out who he is. "It's Sid Monge," says Herzog. "He forgot his (normal) uniform. Whaddaya expect? He's only been in the game 16 years."

Throughout his club's Grapefruit League victory, Herzog is a man enjoying a little bit of heaven. Every play receives his involuntary, reflexive commentary--a sort of ongoing annotation.

When his favorite part-timer, Dane Iorg, a .297 career hitter, gets a seeing-eye hit, Herzog murmurs affectionately, "Hit the ball right, Dane Iorg. Damn eight-hoppers up the middle . . . And you think we're not gettin' smarter."

When it's mentioned his Cardinals always tag up at second base on routine long flies, something many teams neglect, Herzog says for cryptic explanation, "They don't drop too many fly balls in this league, do they?"

With the retirement of Earl Weaver, Herzog is heir apparent to the game's role of resident guru. True, every October victor becomes a universal genius by the following March. Nonetheless, Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog, who lives "on the highest point in Independence, Mo.," has one of those rare minds that touch all the bases of his world.

At 51, he is the only man who has held every basic job in his sport: big-league player, coach, scout, farm system director, manager and general manager.

Herzog has changed teams or job descriptions a dozen times. Perhaps that is why the thought of being fired holds little terror for him. In fact, Herzog is one of a dwindling breed of big-time pro sports bosses who genuinely relishes his work, rather than being tormented by it.

While many a Weaver or Dick Vermeil are retiring for their health, taking a sabbatical or lamenting the fad disease "coach burnout," Herzog seems blithely oblivious. He dreamed about managing a big-league club from the time he was 12 "listening to Babe Ruth's radio show on Saturday morning."

"People ask me when I'm going to quit managing," says Herzog, winner of almost every award as man of the year, manager of the year and executive of the year over the past two seasons for his rebuilding of the Cardinals. "I have no idea. As long as I'm having this good a time, I'm sure as hell not gonna quit.

"I really do enjoy it. In July of '79 (with the Kansas City Royals), we lost 14 out of 15. Our pitching fell apart. In two weeks, I only gave two signs because we were always behind, 5-0, 6-0, so fast. "The writers brought me a half-gallon of scotch with a nice note. I've still got it. Basically, they thanked me for not being a jerk. I could have locked the clubhouse (to the press), blown up at everybody but I didn't.

"I managed my rear off that year to keep us in the race until the last week. We even set an attendance record.

"I enjoyed it."

After that 1979 season, although he had won divisional pennants in '76, '77 and '78, Herzog was fired. Instead of being bitter, Herzog maintains it taught him that "it's no big deal gettin' fired. Managers are in a funny position. The way to make more money is to get fired, like Billy (Martin). He got a helluva raise this season. We won the Series and I didn't get any raise. I'd have been better off if I'd gotten fired . . .

"Gene (ex-manager Mauch) says he gave up golf during the (California Angels') season last year. I can't believe that. Why would you give up something if you enjoyed it?" says Herzog, whose clubs have had the best record in their division in five of his last six full seasons. "I'll wake up at 6 a.m. (in season), go fishing, come back at 9:30, eat breakfast, take a nap and then go out to the park."

In the World Series, Herzog shocked some people when he said he would use his day off before the sixth game to fish, maybe play a little golf, too. Asked why he'd do such a thing, Herzog said, "Weatherman says it'll be a nice day . . ."

Some managers drink to get to sleep. Herzog found an alternative. "I get out the rule book," he says. "One paragraph on 'obstruction' and I'm asleep."

Other managers agonize about their relationships with their players or their "image." This gives Herzog a good laugh.

"Your players have to respect your knowledge. After that, you can be any way you want," says Herzog, a friend to many of his players. "Be honest, be fair. But first, they have to know that you know what the hell to do."

Herzog is undeniably ambitious, canny in his calculations; a natural politician when it comes to stroking feathers, winning favor, charming the powerful. What gives Herzog depth is his ability to blend this savvy with candor and a biting humor that he'll allow surprising rein.

An unashamed wheeler-dealer when he was general manager, Herzog had the audacity to turn the winter meetings after the 1980 and '81 seasons into the Whitey meetings. As the brass from other clubs did a slow burn, Herzog acted as though the gatherings were his private trade grounds, taking his sweet time, playing all ends against the middle, caring not one whit what suited others but only what served him.

The same Herzog who fishes before breakfast, and couldn't stop telling dugout jokes if he tried, is a fellow who will stay annoyed for years over losing. If you want to see smoke rise from the ears under that weird cornstalk hair, just ask how he could be dumb enough to bring in Dennis Leonard in the ninth inning of the fifth game of the '77 playoffs.

Herzog's first rule is simple: "Don't hold back. If you're going to do something, then do it. Don't apologize. Lose it your way or win it your way. Damn," he says, out of the blue, "I'd still bring in Leonard."

For years, only one thing truly stuck in Herzog's craw: losing three straight playoffs to the New York Yankees. "If we'd lost in the Series last year, they'd have said, 'He still can't win the big ones,' " says Herzog, showing the pique he usually camouflages. "I wouldn't mind losing in the playoffs every year, because that means 22 other guys (managers) are back home."

What, Herzog is asked, would be the best job on earth?

He thinks about this very seriously. "Ski instructor," he says.

Herzog lets his little joke settle in, then smiles.

"To be the manager of the world champions every spring."