Frank White, the Kansas City Royals' veteran second baseman, looked around his crowded locker room today, his eyes darting from one television crew to another, his lips curling into a grin as he surveyed a once-familiar scene.

"I never thought I would see another playoff here in my career," he said. "Usually, when a team begins quote, rebuilding, unquote, that means you're at least a couple years away from competing.

"But we just woke up one morning and found ourselves in a position to take something and we went ahead and took it. So, here we are."

The Royals are here to play host to the opening game of the American League championship series Tuesday night against the Detroit Tigers partly because they played great baseball the last two months of the season and partly because no one seemed to want the West Division.

They present a striking contrast to the Tigers, a team that won 92 games a year ago, then led wire to wire this year, starting out 35-5 on their way to a 104-58 record.

Never in the 16-year history of baseball's playoffs has there been a statistical mismatch of this magnitude. The Royals finished 84-78. Even the 1973 New York Mets, the worst team (82-79) to win a division title, were only 17 games worse than their playoff opponent, the Cincinnati Reds.

The recollection of those Mets had White and many of his teammates talking confidently today on a bright, chilly afternoon at Royals Stadium. The Mets beat the Reds for the pennant and extended the Oakland A's to seven games in the World Series.

"We may not have the talent to play with these guys for a whole season but for 10 or 12 days we're good enough to play with anybody," said designated hitter Hal McRae, who did not practice today because of back spasms. "I know a lot of people expect us to get wiped out. But I don't think we will."

The Royals' hopes are based largely on their finish (44-27 since July 18), their solid if not spectacular starting pitching and the wondrous Dan Quisenberry, who added 44 saves this year to the 45 he had last year.

"Look at us since July 18," Manager Dick Howser said roughly every 30 seconds as his team worked out today. "Once we got healthy, we were as good as any team in baseball."

The Royals played 32 games without center fielder Willie Wilson because of a drug suspension; 56 games without George Brett because of hamstring problems, and 25 games without White, also with hamstring problems.

Wilson's return May 16 certainly made a huge difference. He hit .301, stole 47 bases and was the catalyst for the offense. Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson thinks Wilson is the key for Kansas City.

"What he does is going to have a lot to do with how we pitch," Anderson said. "If he gets on, then we're not going to throw Brett a lot of good pitches. If he doesn't, well . . . "

In the Royals' four appearances in the playoffs (1976-77-78-80 and all against the Yankees), Brett has been a pivotal figure. He hit .284 this year when he was able to play -- 106 points lower than he hit in 1980. For the Royals to have a chance, he and Wilson must have a good hitting series.

The Tigers have been waiting for these playoffs almost since the season began. They thought they were good enough to win a year ago before Baltimore's late-season surge. They came into this season determined to live up to their potential.

Now, they have more to prove. "We're a very confident team coming in here," said catcher Lance Parrish, whose 33 home runs led a team that hit 187 to lead the major leagues. "Not cocky, but confident and ready. I know people are saying there's no pressure on the Royals because no one expected them to be here. But I'll tell you when we get out there we're going to be playing for the same thing and there will be just as much pressure on them as on us."

Chet Lemon, the Tigers' swift center fielder (20 home runs), partly agreed. "As far as 104 wins versus 84 wins is concerned, you just throw that out the window when we start this thing," he said. "But we've waited a long time for this and we want to prove once and for all that we are the best team."

The Tigers have better pitching than the Royals. Usually, that is critical in a short series. They begin with Jack Morris (19-11) facing Bud Black (17-12) in Game 1. Morris had a great first half, a weak middle and a strong finish. Black, 27, who is in his first full season in the big leagues, came on during the Royals' strong second half.

Black was 0-1 against the Tigers and failed to survive the seventh inning in three starts against them.

The second-game matchup is seemingly a mismatch with Dan Petry (18-8) going against rookie Bret Saberhagen (10-11). But Saberhagen was 3-1 against the Tigers.

If Morris, Petry or Game 3 starter Milt Wilcox (17-8) need help from the bullpen, Anderson can go to Willie Hernandez (9-3, 32 saves) or Aurelio Lopez (10-1, 14 saves). Howser hopes his starters can get him to the seventh inning so he can go to Quisenberry.

Clearly, the Royals believe they have a good chance to win this series. Perhaps Brett, as loose and cool as anyone on either team, said it best. "I've heard people say we're the worst playoff team ever, that we should be embarrassed to be here and that we'll get embarrassed," he said. "I guess we'll find out soon enough."


Curiously, the Royals have more playoff experience. Twelve players have been in the playoffs; four Tigers have postseason experience . . . Detroit last made the playoffs in 1972 and the World Series in 1968. The only man left from the World Series team is the batting coach, Gates Brown . . . Detroit shortstop Alan Trammell has had shoulder problems lately but insisted he is healthy. Nevertheless, the Royals talked during batting practice of trying to hit in the third base-shortstop hole to test his arm . . . Anderson will start Marty Castillo at third base because Tom Brookens is not fully recovered from a hamstring injury . . . The Royals were outscored during the season, 683-676. The Tigers outscored their opponents, 829-643. Strangely, Detroit is 6-0 against the Royals here but 1-5 against them in Detroit.