Sparky Anderson sat in his office an hour before game time, thinking about 14 years worth of managing in pennant races and wondering what it might be like to get tangled up in the tightest one ever.

Never before have five teams been so close to first place on Aug. 15--all within 1 1/2 games of the lead, as they were in the American League East when this week started. Only the old Federal League in 1915 ever had a five-team logjam that approached this lovely mess. For a lifelong baseball man such as Anderson, it's a cruelly delicious prospect.

"It's hard now and it's gonna get a lot harder," said the Detroit Tigers manager, his team, at that moment, virtually tied for first place. "I hope we stay in this thing right to the end so these guys can find out just how hard it is--to lose that sleep, to be so nervous you can't eat, or to eat and throw it back up. To me, that's what it means to be an athlete.

"One year, I couldn't keep anything down but coffee. It got so I had to have coffee to go to sleep," says Anderson, the game's senior manager and owner of the eighth-best winning percentage (.576) in history. "Pretty soon, you'll see guys arrivin' at the park at 2:30. They start comin' earlier and earlier, and they leave later and later."

The combination of enormous pressure, plus a relentless schedule that brings even the worst of players into the spotlight at the most vital of times, will force these clubs to know themselves and their mates better perhaps than they ever wished. Self-knowledge isn't everyone's dish.

"I've been here five years and this is the first time we've been able to look at our club and grade it for real," says Anderson. "We're going to find out which cats can't take the heat . . .

"I've got a sign in my office back home. 'Every 24 hours, the world rolls over on someone who thought they were on top of it,' " says Anderson. "That's going to be even more true than usual in the next few weeks."

As Anderson chats, Aurelio Lopez, the team's only relief pitcher of quality, pokes his head into Anderson's office. He has a long splint and a bandage on the middle finger of his pitching hand; inflamed tendon, supposedly from too much experimentation with a bullpen fork ball. Kansas City's Dan Quisenberry summarizes the Tigers' chances in four words: "No Lopez, no Detroit." Everybody knows Lopez is both the Tigers' key and Achilles' heel.

Each day, the manager and the reliever have to endure the daily strain of balancing the team's needs against the pain in the pitcher's swollen hand. How much can the 34-year-old Lopez, who's already pitched 96 innings, stand? What's the risk of a minor, nagging injury becoming a season-wrecking disabling injury? After all, the tubby 225-pound Mexican--a star in 1979 and '80--has already spent most of the last two seasons either disabled or ineffective.

"Not tonight," says Lopez to Anderson.

Three hours later, the locker room is silent as second place.

Detroit has had a tough test and, for this night, has failed in the most painful way. Almost all of this good team's flaws have been displayed at once.

The bullpen, minus Lopez, has blown a four-run lead; arson runs in the bullpen's bloodlines. Doug Bair, a poor stopgap measure acquired in midseason, has allowed a two-run, game-losing triple to the first hitter he faces; Anderson, exuding disgust, relieves him almost immediately.

The Detroit starter, Larry Pashnick, has shown why the Tigers have been holding their breath for five weeks waiting for veteran starter Milt Wilcox (due back on the mound on Aug. 23) to return from his annual sore arm; Wilcox always wins 12 or 13 games, but also always misses six to 10 starts.

With a 4-0 lead, Pashnick has walked three men who eventually score. "Some guys never figure out why they can't stick in the majors. And they always blame somebody else," says Anderson, sternly, the reference obviously directed at Pashnick's base-on-balls sins.

Pashnick is a double worry because enigmatic right-hander Dave Rozema is just one or two more bad starts away from being sent to the bullpen, even though his record is 8-3. Anderson is an old-fashioned straight arrow and isn't inclined to trust Rozema down the stretch.

Last year, Rozema fell on a bottle in his back pocket and needed 11 stitches in his hip; playfully shoved star Alan Trammell's face into a glass, causing the shortstop to endure 47 stitches within an inch of his eye, and disabled himself for the year and almost ended his own career when, during a brawl with Minnesota, he tried to unleash a kung fu kick and, missing his opponent, severed eight of the nine ligaments in his knee.

Suddenly, after this defeat, Detroit's only a half-game out of fifth place. "First to fifth, fifth back to first. It's probably gonna happen to everybody a coupla times before this thing is over," said Anderson softly.

Veteran Enos Cabell sits by his locker, trying to swallow a zero-for-five day in which he'd stranded six runners and never gotten the ball out of the infield. Batting third, he ended the game when a hit would have tied the score.

Cabell knows he's a Tigers' symbol: strong up the middle, weak at the corners.

"Nobody (in the league) is as good at catcher, shortstop, second base and center field--taking 'em all together--as Detroit," says Royals Manager Dick Howser, refering to Lance Parrish, Trammell (.322), Lou Whitaker (.320) and Chet Lemon.

But no contender is as powerless at first and third base as Detroit where designated hitter and first baseman Cabell (despite a .304 average) and third baseman Tom Brookens have only seven homers and 51 RBI in 526 at bats.

John Wockenfuss, who, in each of his 10 years with the Tigers has watched his club have its season ruined by a losing streak of anywhere from eight to 19 ('75) games, says of the race: "It's tense. It's fun. It's important. It just keeps changing every day."

One thing hasn't changed for the Tigers. Their best athlete--college football all-America Kirk Gibson, who hit a 550-foot home run earlier this year--is still a fizzle, batting .223 and riding the bench against lefties. In the ninth, he's done it again, taking a huge swing and hitting the ball straight up.

The Detroit clubhouse is quiet in defeat. Ironically, these Tigers are a club of milk drinkers in a shot-and-beer-town. "This is a very shy ball club," says Anderson. "Outstanding people, but very quiet."

"Compared to those hard-drinking, hell-raisin' Tiger teams I played on in the late '60s, they are mild," says Gates Brown, now a coach. "They also know that they can win."

The long test is beginning. Anderson says he sees the best of all signs. "I haven't heard one alibi yet," he says.

"If you start hearin' 'em say, 'You're burnin' my money,' or 'So-and-so's too tight to play,' then you're dead . . .And I've heard that alibiing in the past three years here. You can't have the little cliques forming. I've told 'em, if I hear anybody rip his teammates, I'll open him up so bad no doctors in the world can stitch him up."

Next: the Milwaukee Brewers