To reach Steve Garvey, it often is necessary to experience the airline that sounds like a fast-food franchise.

"One, two, three . . . five. Great! Everybody's here," said the man from Wings West, Terry Schick, who also goes the extra three miles to please his public. Schick takes tickets and luggage at one level of the Phoenix Airport, then pops on the company cap, dashes upstairs and leads the passenger parade to a plane Ralph Sampson could barely crawl through without scraping his head.

Then Schick serves a juice-and-crackers snack, bids a cheery goodbye to get back to being the handiest of airline handymen, and you actually wing west very smoothly. And find Garvey exactly where you expected: not at first base just yet, but being attacked by Bics and Instamatics.

Other millionaire athletes endure fans; Garvey sweeps them off their feet. By making them feel they have just penetrated his heart, Garvey surely has entered theirs. His stats for a typical spring-training day: one double, two RBI, five kisses, several interviews, at least two dozen pictures and seven dozen autographs.

Out by the net-enclosed batting cages before San Diego's exhibition game against the Seattle Mariners, Garvey signs and smiles in midseason form. The preeminent Padre certainly does not mind posing with the woman who said she planned to send a print to her brother-in-law, the Dodger fan.

"You having fun?" a chubby preteen inquires.


"How about you?" Garvey fires back.

Startled, the boy soon fields the question and says: "Sure."

"That," said Garvey, "is what it's all about."

With him, it genuinely is.

Skeptics have poked around Garvey for so long, and determined that his only flaw is being human, that he suffers some of the same away-from-the-office troubles everybody does. His rocky marriage has been explored from every angle. If he should pass away in the midst of a postgame crowd, the tabs would report: "Garvey refuses autograph."

Admittedly, he does cause an uneasy feeling with such as: "The streak (1,107 straight games) isn't important. What's important is my commitment, which most of all has always been to that fan who comes to the park and spends a hard-earned $10 or $15. Say he comes to see me play, and I've got a headache or a hangnail or pulled muscle and don't.

"Then it's on my conscience if he comes up afterward and says: 'Gee, I only have a chance to see one game this year; I came to see you, and I'm sorry you didn't play today.' "


"It's no sleep that night."

Come on, Steve.

Still, when you think about it, the numbers on a player's mind when he breaks into baseball, and especially at midcareer, are not the consecutive-game streaks of Billy Williams (1,117 in the National League) or Lou Gehrig (2,130 in the majors). A fellow can miss a few games a season and sleep long and easy each night. Garvey not only has missed just seven games in his last 1,500, by his estimate; he also twice has played nearly every inning of every game.

That is why more people than Garvey hope for no Padres' rainouts until after the weekend of April 15, 16 and 17. What could be more appropriate than for the Dodgers' symbol of the last decade--and then let go in free-agent bidding last December--to break Williams' record in Dodger Stadium?

If he stays blessed, Garvey will tie Williams on the 15th and slip past him the 16th. He also needs only 32 hits to reach 2,000 and eight RBI for 1,000.

"It will be a reciprocal show of love," he said of that first return to L.A. "They were there for my heights; they were there for times which were very, very tough, personally and professionally. So when I'm 80, in a rocking chair and looking out over the ocean, I'll think back and consider the fans my fondest memories."

One of his funniest memories was a national tournament in Johnstown, Pa.; he played for a team representing Michigan.

"One catcher had a split thumb," he said, "the other had a bad back. So they called in your natural athlete. First thing the umpire says is: 'Don't turn around and don't question any of my calls, or you're out of the game.' I didn't even know how to give signs."

Now he'll give you a good deal of his time off the field and his best effort on it. He'll give you his hand, as long as you don't ask him to sign it.

Fans being themselves, which is to say goofy at times, tax his imagination as well as patience. Good taste once told Garvey those parts of the human body to autograph; lately, good sense has told him not to sign even the most G-rated patches of skin.

"The pen might penetrate," he said, "and lead to an infection."

And a lawsuit.

Even in spring training, Garvey is remarkably on target at bat. His near-.300 average and two homers in 15 games nearly mirror his 12-season production. Dodger bottomliners assume that at 34 Garvey has all but worn out; with fans, he never wears thin.

"My greatest challenge," he said, "is to help build a winning tradition with the Padres."

Without Garvey, the Padres were .500 last season, eight games behind the Braves in the NL West.

Off the field, Garvey hopes his Professional Athletes Career Enterprises (PACE) has an impact. It's a career-counseling and job-search company for former athletes.

"The only one of its kind," he said. "We're trying to help athletes make the transition. Costs the athlete nothing; could make the difference in his postsports life."

Garvey's own postsports life very likely will include politics. To a promise by an acquaintance to be on hand in Washington, when he is sworn in as a freshman congressman, Garvey said: "Or sworn at."

His PACE is consistent with Garvey's career-long pace. There's a reward for him, but it's also the right thing to do.