In baseball, if your voice shatters the crystal, they call you "Whispering Phil" and if your mug makes mothers cover their babies' eyes, they tag you "Handsome Jack."

So it ought to give fair warning that Dave Johnson's nickname in his all-star days with Baltimore was "Dumb Dumb".

The inside joke was that Johnson actually was the smartest Oriole.

Nobody else had the brass to second-guess Earl Weaver. Johnson actually got himself traded because he just couldn't resist challenging Weaver to tests of brainpower.

Johnson still wears cowboy boots and plays the "Aw, shucks" role with his drooping eyelids and weak chin. But he's starting to blow his cover.

The 42-year-old New York Mets manager is the Columbo of skippers. He may even be the new wave.

Since Johnson arrived last spring, the mysterious Mets, in first place in the National League East despite a team batting average of .225, have stood every law of baseball probability on its head.

Perhaps only Johnson, who has a mathematics degree from Texas' Trinity University and keeps a computer, not a fungo, next to him in the dugout, really knows what the word "probability" means in baseball.

For 20 years, professors have been muttering from ivied campuses about the revolution that would hit baseball if the game ever got a manager who grasped the sport from both an athlete's and an academic's point of view.

Johnson may be the first hybrid.

He started in four World Series, made four all-star teams and tied Rogers Hornsby for the all-time season home run record for a second baseman (42). He's all ballplayer -- tough, tangy, scarred and very stubborn. He's been beaned and released, put in the doghouse and sent back to the bushes. He knows clubhouse politics and dugout emotions.

But he also puts on the take sign "because of Prof. Ernshaw Cook's theory of favorable chance deviation" and sees the end of a slump "because we're on the upslope of the sine curve."

Consider the following numbers.

In 1984-85 under Johnson, the Mets have been outscored by 18 runs. But they've won 29 games more than they've lost: 113-84.

In one- and two-run games, the Mets are 70-37. In all others, 43-47. The Johnson Mets are 23-2 in extra innings.

To a stat freak, all of this is almost hallucinatory.

At first, it was thought to be beginner's luck. Then it was a streak. Now, after 200 games under Johnson, it's possible -- just possible -- that what we have here is a man ahead of his time.

You can mumble about great relief pitching, good defense, a deep bench and team spirit -- all of which the Mets have -- but something else is going on here, too.

For a century, teams' records in close games have mirrored their record in lopsided games -- regardless of type of personnel. Bullpen, schmulpen. And clubs that got outscored have rarely gotten above .525 for very long.

Johnson, who is a licensed pilot and who made his first million dollars in real estate, not baseball, isn't giving many clues to his methods.

His offfice book shelf gives hints of his personality: "The Hidden Game of Baseball" (exotic stats), "Computer Baseball," "Radar Gun Readings," "The Talbot Odyssey," "The Salamandra Glass."

But show that you have even an inkling of what he's talking about and he stops talking about it.

For example, Johnson mentions Cook's cult tome on higher mathematics, probability and baseball. When someone says he has a copy and could Johnson explain it more, it ends the subject.

"The fallacy of the book is that it assumes players are machines," he says. "For example, Cook says if the count is 2-0 on a hitter with an average under .250, you should put on the take 'til he has two strikes. What he doesn't take into consideration is that you could destroy a player's confidence that way.

"You can only do that stuff in game situations."

And what about game situations?

Sorry, Davey just remembered an urgent meeting.

Even Johnson's coaches aren't quite sure what he's up to, although they like the results. "Late in a close game, he looks for every little edge," said Coach Mel Stottlemyre. "He believes a great deal in matchups in game situations. He has a list of which hitters he won't allow to win the game against certain of our pitchers. And visa versa for our hitters against their pitchers.

"I see other teams not concerned with those things. You can call it 'outthinking' the other manager if you want to. I think we get the better of the late-game matchups," said Stottlemyre.

"Davey doesn't make a lot of (overmanaging) moves in the first six innings, but when the game is close and it's late, he takes over completely and does exactly what's best for the team, regardless of (players') feelings.

"The players accept it because he'll take them aside and explain it."

"It's gotten past the point where you can explain our record (in close games) just by pointing at our bullpen, or our good pinch-hitting or the way we all persevere," said pitcher Ron Darling, a Yale grad. "I think (Johnson) has taken some strategic stuff to a higher level. In the games we win, it always seems like it's one big hit that does it, or one big inning."

Like Weaver, Johnson loves to study pitcher-vs.-hitter matchups over a career. "But I thought Earl abused the (matchup) 'cards,' " said Johnson. "I believe more in who has the hot hand."

As an example, last year Johnson told Keith Hernandez, "You're hitting .138 off Nolan Ryan for your career. Let me give you a rest here." Hernandez said, "I'm comfortable hitting off Ryan. The stats don't show atom (hit right at 'em) balls. And I've hurt him late in games."

Johnson relented and, "I won the game with a homer," said Hernandez.

Can it be proven that Johnson's bookish theories and his old-salt knack have combined to make him the sport's breakthrough prototypical manager?

No, of course not.

For 15 seasons, Weaver's teams won about five games a year more than the stat formulas said they should have. And they did better in the tight going than should have been possible. Fifteen years isn't coincidence.

Maybe these mysterious Mets have some curious blend of factors that no one will name. Or maybe they've just been lucky and the clock will toll midnight on their hair's-breadth escape act soon. At one point last year, the Mets were 26-9 in one-run games and now they're 12-4. How long can that last for a team that's been outscored overall?

Whatever the case, Dumb Dumb Davey Johnson is going to be a closely watched man until the verdict is final.

"The dugout guys and the scientific fellas with all the numbers have always been real far apart," said Stottlemyre. "I don't know if Davey is the first one to bring their ideas together.

"But he might be getting closer."