They have almost nothing in common except the flinty and determined look in their aging eyes.

They're young and yet, suddenly, they're not. They look at you hard.

Their average age is 36, which, in baseball, is just shy of deceased.

Yet they are the players who have given definition to the National League playoffs. They're the superstar rejects.

When you talk about the character of the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres, you have to start with them.

The Cubs have Ron Cey (36), Gary Matthews (34) and Larry Bowa (38). The Penguin, The Sarge and The Runt. One quacks, one cheers, the other grouses.

The Padres have Steve Garvey (35), Graig Nettles (40) and Rich Gossage (33). Garv, Graig and The Goose. One stands erect, one slouches slyly, the other glowers.

They've all had stellar careers and all been big October winners, but they've all been rejected, too.

The Dodgers barely tried to re-sign Garvey and Cey after 1982. The Yankees gave up on Nettles and Gossage last winter. And the Phillies got rid of Bowa and Matthews, the latter just weeks after he was most valuable player of last fall's playoffs.

The big shock was that all these players were either traded or tepidly pursued when they became free agents just minutes, it seemed, after they'd helped their clubs to pennants or world titles. These weren't just all-star and playoff MVPs, these were team leaders.

"Better to get rid of 'em a year too soon rather than a year too late," said Branch Rickey long ago, and that's been baseball's front-office rationale for tightwad ingratitude ever since.

Perhaps the acerbic Cey, who's always had a chip on his shoulder because of his peculiar, comic physique, says it best for all of them. "The same teams don't always make it to the playoffs, but it looks like the same people do. Maybe this is more a sport of special individuals and less of rich organizations than some think."

It hardly seems an accident that victory follows certain players. The Phillies went to the Series last year with Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez -- all far past their Cincinnati Reds prime, but all still champions. Reggie Jackson has been in the playoffs with the Oakland A's, New York Yankees and California Angels.

Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski, Fred Lynn, Doug DeCinces, Catfish Hunter -- it's not a short list or a new trend. You'd think smart folks who run rich teams like the Dodgers, Yankees and Phillies would see what happens to clubs that let their heart-and-soul players leave town. The life leaves with them.

The common denominator of all these men is that they are so proud, yet so deeply offended, that they refuse to sink to the level of defending themselves.

"The situation speaks for itself better than I could," says Cey, who played with a wrist brace for months yet, counting playoffs, has 26 homers and 100 RBI this season. "The Dodgers' record is in the paper every day."

"Words clutter the statement," says Garvey, who, two years after a bitter departure from the Dodgers, led the Padres in RBI (86), was second in batting average (.284) and set a record for consecutive errorless games. "Let's just say I hope to play three more years (his current contract) and lead us to a couple of championships. I don't think in terms of vindication."

Sure, Garv.

"A lot of people are starting to realize what kind of guy I am," says Matthews who, in 60 postseason at bats in three different seasons, has a spectacular seven home runs, 43 total bases and 15 RBI.

"If you don't have the super (regular season) stats, you don't get tabbed as a superstar. I don't think the most valuable player on the team has to have the best stats. I feel, on a day-to-day basis, I'm just as important as anybody on our club," says Matthews, who got the "Sarge" tag from no less a student of leadership than Rose.

"Matthews isn't afraid to show emotion," says Cub Manager Jim (Small) Frey. "But a lot of players like to be called leaders and try to use the right words. But if the performance isn't there, nobody listens . . .

"Over the second half of the season, Matthews and Cey had the most big hits for us," continued Frey. "But you can't get carried away with 'old vets.' I can find a lot of them in bars, but they can't win you the pennant."

These guys still can. Matthews' rebuttal for being traded, and at a cheap price, just before opening day, was to have his best season: 101 runs, 103 walks, .291 average, 82 RBI.

Nettles and Gossage were just as eloquent in showing up Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Gossage had his typical 25 saves, 10 wins and 2.90 ERA. Nettles, who simply refuses to play to his age, had the second-best run-producing season of his career (on a per-at-bat basis) with 20 homers, 65 RBI and 101 runs produced in just 395 at bats.

If Gossage had been in the Yankees' bullpen, allowing Dave Righetti to stay in the rotation, and if Nettles had been at third, where the Yankees got abysmal performances, would the New Yorkers be going to the World Series, not Detroit?

In the dugouts and locker rooms of this NL showdown, the voices you hear are tart and crisp, proud but humble.

It's the scrawny but still useful Bowa, who needs to play just seven more games to break Rabbit Maranville's NL record for career games at shortstop, who sets the Cubs' tone of confidence. It's Gossage who was most defiant when his Padres fell behind by two games.

Whether it's Matthews and Cey hitting three homers in the opener, or Cey hitting the game-changing double in Game 2, or Bowa turning five double plays, or Gossage finishing Game 3, it's the old boys -- the real good ol' boys of this playoff -- who are giving these festivities their sense of substance.

Cey really is right, isn't he? It's the same people, not the same teams, who revisit us each fall.

Particularly tonight, Steve Garvey.