When Stump Merrill's wife Carole heard that he'd been named first base coach of the New York Yankees, she said, "What does a first base coach do besides pat the guys on the rear end?"

"Nothing," he answered. "How about some practice?"

It's taken Carl Harrison Merrill 20 years of hard work to win the honor of doing nothing much down 'round first base at Yankee Stadium this season. When they play the anthem on Opening Day, nobody'll stand taller in his pin stripes than the 5-foot-8 former catcher.

When you play your college ball for Maine, when you hit two home runs in your six-year minor league career, when you manage seven more seasons in the bushes, when you officiate high school basketball and coach football at Bowdoin in the winter to earn extra bucks, it's a long way to the House That Ruth Built.

Even to the coach's box. They say the only thing on a baseball field that gets noticed less than the first base coach is first base; it's the ideal job for an international fugitive.

But when the opener comes, Merrill's big league debut won't go unmarked. The Yankees' first game is scheduled at Fenway Park and many friends from Merrill's tiny home town of Topsham, Maine, will note the moment with an approving New England nod for a task completed.

"Yes, I'm very excited," Merrill said. "I think I've accomplished something, a reward for the long hours and all the years I've put in.

"Now, if I can just survive a few more weeks," he said, laughing, as though New York fired coaches as fast as managers.

At 41, Merrill has lots of rewards for his years in baseball. No pension or job security. A master's degree from Maine that he's never used. Thousands of days away from his wife and two kids. A degenerative arthritic knee ("two zippers, two 'scopes") that makes him a prime candidate for an artificial knee.

And a smile lit from within.

"My wife says, 'Are you ever going to put all that education to work?' " Merrill said. "Every place I've been, people say, 'What are you doing here?' But I don't think I'd do anything different. I've never wanted to do anything else except come to a ballpark. I've never had trouble getting up in the morning and going to work. There's an awful lot to be said for that. I tell her I'd be a miserable SOB in a real job."

All Merrill truly regrets is that he couldn't share his daughters' youth. He's never dragged his family on the road with him during school time. "We don't want our kids to go to 15 schools. The value of a quality education for them exceeds the things I'm doing."

That modesty doesn't mean Merrill undersells his own ambitions or skills. "My father died when I was fairly young. I remember two things he told me. Think positive and think big."

When Merrill interviewed for a high school coaching job 14 years ago after one last blown knee ended a dogged career in the minors (one season with more than 15 RBI), he was asked his ultimate goal.

"Major league manager," he wrote.

Pretty brash for a guy who played four years of pro ball before he hit a home run. "Every day, I'd come to the park and the guys would say, 'This is Stump's day for the homer.' When I finally hit it, in Reading in '69, I was running so hard I was halfway to third before I realized it was out of the park. My roomie ran out of the dugout and, just like we planned, I slid into home plate and he called me safe."

"Managing in the majors was utterly unrealistic then. Even now, it's probably a million-to-one shot.

"But," said Merrill, "I'm on the dance floor."

Maybe only Merrill knows how close he came to missing his dance. From Batavia to Portsmouth to Bakersfield to Eugene to West Haven to Nashville to Columbus, he pitched BP and gave pep talks, hit fungos and mothered homesick youngsters, warmed up wild pitchers and watched a thousand bush-league cow-milking contests.

What kept him going was that though progress was slow, it was progress. Then in 1982, 16 years after turning pro, the real blow came. After finishing second, first, first and first as a manager, Merrill somehow got on the wrong side of the Yankees' brass. He was sent backward, from AA to A. He was knocked flat.

"There were long nights soul-searching," he said. Back at the bottom of the minor league barrel here in Fort Lauderdale, people really told Merrill, "You don't belong here."

Instead of quitting, going back to the relative safety of college coaching, Merrill "kept my mouth shut and waited for a break . . . I'm a big believer in fate and hard work. I think I learned from it, became a little better man."

Perhaps the truth is that Merrill simply loved the game too much to leave it. Last year, the Yankees' AAA managing job came open and a surprised Merrill found himself at Columbus in charge of their top prospects. His team finished first (the fifth time in seven years) and his managing record reached 584-382.

Now, New York's camp is full of players who've had Merrill at some stop. Most cite the same quality: honesty. "Stump is a straight talker and a judge of people," coach Jerry McNertney said.

Suddenly, the stumpy one's opinion is sought in the same breath as that of coaches lower on the totem pole than he -- fellows such as Whitey Ford and Merrill's good buddy, Catfish Hunter.

"People seem to think I know more than I did a year ago," he said.

What does the future hold?

"Can't wait to start the season," he bubbled. "Can't wait to find out what we're holdin'."

No, Stump -- long-range future.

Merrill shrugged and grinned. One arm leaned on his fungo bat. His foot was on the top step of the dugout to take weight off that bad knee so he could pitch a little BP soon.

"Maybe," he said, "they'll bury me in a pine box with high stirrups."