Give The Rat his due. Whitey Herzog may know baseball better than anybody else.

It's one thing to take over a last-place team and turn it into a World Series champion in 28 months -- as Herzog did with the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the title in 1982. It's quite another to have that team fall apart so quickly and so badly that you have to replace 18 of your 25 players and do the whole blasted job over again.

Few thought Herzog could revive the Cardinals in the first place. That he would resurrect them twice, and manage it so quickly, is a thing only he could have done. The task fit the man exactly.

Let's join Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog -- Whitey to baseball fans, The White Rat to his friends, and just Rat to his players -- as he tells Richie Ashburn a story.

How Herzog weaves the tale, the details he appreciates and the ironic core that appeals to him in the parable, tells volumes about why he has his Cardinals one game out of first place in the National League East.

"We're sitting around this table with the Mets back in '65," Herzog says to Ashburn, painting a picture for the old batting champion of everybody who was there. The names, like Bing Devine and Joe McDonald, few fans would recognize; but every baseball insider would. Like Herzog, they're part of that infrastructure of lifers who make the game's gritty decisions about who gets signed, promoted, traded or cut. Since Herzog is the only man in major league history who's held every job from player to scout to coach to farm system director to general manager, he may know more such people at more levels than anyone else.

Herzog tells Ashburn about this sad rookie in the minors who's been signed out of military ball at 22, is in way over his head facing teen-agers and is ready to go back to his Minnesota farm. "We decide to release him. And he'd have gone home, too. But Joe McDonald says, 'Wait. I just loaned that guy $50. Let's keep him till payday.' "

As always in such yarns, the young pitcher saved his career with a couple of shutouts, and he has gone on to win 222 games in the major leagues. "So when Jerry Koosman goes against us this afternoon," says Herzog, "I'm gonna remind him he's just a $50 pitcher."

From the bleachers, baseball seems geometrical, logical and, at times, even quantifiable. From the field, it reveals itself to be the same tangled maze of luck and coincidence, opportunity and circumstance, that tantalizes all human beings. Over a $50 whim, a life can change.

When fans talk trade, they discuss players, some outfielder who hit .289.

Whitey Herzog trades living men.

Building, tinkering, reworking and, especially, gambling are his passions. No central character in baseball is so at home in his world, so relaxed in the face of failure and so willing to take a chance just for the pure devilish hell of seeing what will happen.

Other baseball men, scalded by an awful trade such as Keith Hernandez for Neil Allen, might have lost their nerve.

Instead, Herzog keeps rolling the tumblers, waiting for the lock to fall open. This year, he's broken the bank.

Twice.

In almost any other year, trading old, grumpy George Hendrick to Pittsburgh for John Tudor, who's 15-8 with a 2.07 ERA, would be the theft of the season. Herzog had spotted how wonderfully all of Tudor's stats (except his won-lost record) improved when he moved from Fenway Park to Pittsburgh in '84. What, he wondered, would Tudor do in an even bigger park with a marvelous defense behind him. Answer: win 20, looks like.

This year, Herzog will have to compete with himself as foremost felon in the larceny sweepstakes. Jack Clark, who could lead the league in RBI and be MVP, was extracted from the Giants in February for four gentlemen of rapidly diminishing repute. Of the quartet, the only one who may leave a lasting dent in lore could be Jose Gonzalez, a journeyman who changed his name three times in a month, prompting coach Rocky Bridges to say, "He really is the player to be named later."

Perhaps the Tudor and Clark magic shouldn't have surprised us. Herzog, you recall, has done all this before.

Remember Hernandez, Hendrick and Lonnie Smith -- the three top RBI men on that 1982 gang (the latter two grabbed in Herzog deals)? They're all long gone now, just like third baseman Ken Oberkfell and the entire bench.

Of Herzog's 10 pitchers of '82, two remain. And one of them (Bob Forsch) has gone from star to mop-up man.

"Dynasties" don't last long these days, but Herzog's house of cards couldn't even stay upright until the next season's All-Star Game.

When the Cardinals, after being losers in 1983 (79-83) and mediocrities in 1984 (84-78), failed to re-sign reliever Bruce Sutter -- The Franchise -- last winter, folks thought Herzog was acting irrationally. Instead, the Cardinals (67-43) are headed for 100 victories.

Even with hindsight, this seems almost impossible. Only four important characters from the 1982 champions retain vital roles: Joaquin Andujar (19-6), Willie McGee (.355), Tommy Herr (80 RBI) and Ozzie Smith (Gold Glove).

Part of the truth is that the '82 Cardinals were a mite flukey. With only 67 homers and no pitcher with even 16 victories, they lived by speed, defense and Sutter. For Herzog, they were a case of Love the One You're With. When you win a world title and only outscore the league by 76 runs, you're using mirrors.

This 1985 club is beginning to look as if it might be the one he was trying to construct all along. Although their marquee value still is low, these Cardinals already have outscored the opposition by 124 runs in 110 games -- almost twice the margin of any other NL team.

Although they are famous for their steals (208 so far, with 300 possible), what the Cardinals really do best is hit, pitch and field. The real stuff. St. Louis leads the league in hitting (.262) and scoring (512 runs); only the spectacular Los Angeles pitching staff has a better ERA (2.85 to 3.02).

"With the Cardinals, the threat of the steal is worse than the steal itself," says the Phillies' Mike Schmidt. "The steal leads to one run, but the threat of the steal leads to big three- and four-run innings.

"With Vince Coleman (81 steals) and Willie McGee (42) at the top of the order, it seems like some of their innings take 10 or 15 minutes. The pitcher gets totally distracted. His concentration on the hitter is broken. He ends up falling behind the count and feeding a fast ball to Tommy Herr or Jackie Clark."

While speed is only part of what makes the Cardinals excellent, it's a big part of what makes them so much fun. From the day Herzog arrived, he's built the first truly modern artifical-surface team by emphasizing speed everywhere.

As soon as Herzog saw that the smart, dedicated Coleman was ready to play left field, he traded moody Lonnie Smith. "We had him (Coleman) ticketed for AAA for half a year, but talent can always surprise you," says Herzog, who lives by the credo that the gifted can be rushed while the plodders must be coddled.

"Vince and Willie are the two fastest men at the top of an order since Rock and Cool Breeze," says Herzog, using the nicknames for Tim Raines and Rodney Scott of the 1981 Expos.

"It's been phenomenal for our fans to watch. But it's exciting to watch for us, too," says Ozzie Smith, who should be used to the shenanigans since the Cardinals are the first team since dead-ball days to steal 200 bases in four straight seasons.

Says Smith, "Good pitching may stop good hitting, but does it stop good running? We always have ways to score. People talk down on it, like it's a bad thing. What difference does it make how you do it? I think it's an asset to do things this way. It makes us different. We might beat Dwight Gooden, 3-2, and never hit a ball hard off him."

To purists, it's appalling that 26 percent of Coleman's hits and 23 percent of McGee's have not left the infield. Maybe even more are cheap turf grounders that for 100 years would have been easy outs on grass. Decades of pitching indoctrination -- keep the ball down -- merely feed the flames of the Cardinals' ground ball and chop-hit offense.

Nonetheless, it's a misconception that these Cardinals really can't hit properly. "What they can do is hit, especially those Nos. 2, 3, 4 guys," says Cubs Manager Jim Frey. "Coleman may just slap it around, but McGee, Herr and Clark hurt you."

McGee, in particular, has a special chemistry with Coleman, taking pitches so the rookie can steal. "Willie is the only hitter I ever saw who doesn't give a damn whether it's 2-0 or 0-2," says Herzog. "I don't think he knows what the count is or cares."

The Cardinals still lack power (just 57 homers). And a third of their starting lineup could stump any "What's My Line" panel: what positions do Andy Van Slyke (.255), Terry Pendleton (.218) and Tom Nieto (.223) play? Let's just say if you have a spare right fielder, third baseman or catcher, call The Rat. He'll talk.

Among the pitchers, Andujar's deliveries are as hard to figure out as the rest of him. Some managers would lose sleep if their ace was a man who once designed his own home and forgot to include a roof. Herzog, however, knows Andujar just needs recognition and support.

When Andujar had a swollen ankle during the 1982 Series, Herzog was asked a thousand times what he would do if Andujar could not pitch. "Forfeit," said Herzog, picking just the word to prime the ultra-macho Andujar.

It's not Andujar and Tudor who concern Herzog. Even sophomore Danny Cox (13-7, 3.02 ERA), one of those let-'em-hit-it types who flourish in St. Louis, looks fairly sound for the stretch run.

The rest of the St. Louis staff can be summed up best in one of Herzog's gestures -- a shrug. "Pitching is always the question," he says. He, for one, never has milked a staff better.

Rookie Kurt Kepshire and Forsch, 35, have started 32 games, completed only two and have an ERA over 4.40 in a league in which 3.00 doesn't even get you noticed. But they're 12-11 combined.

The bullpen is the ticking bomb. Herzog won division flags in '76, '77 and '78 in Kansas City with never-to-be-remembered relievers such as Mark Littell, Doug Bird, Steve Mingori, Marty Pattin and Larry Gura.

Now, he has five gents trying to keep the ghost of Sutter at bay. Forsch attempts long relief. The "stoppers" are lefty Ken Dayley, who entered the year with a 10-19 record and 4.82 ERA, and Jeff Lahti, who had one career save. Together, they have a 4-2 record, 22 saves and a 2.37 ERA this year -- about what you'd expect from Sutter.

Don't ask. Nobody knows how.

Herzog just keeps doing it wherever he goes. If The Rat met a Bantu warrior in the offseason who threw his spear left-handed, he'd turn him into a decent relief pitcher in a month. One key is that Herzog seldom lets these fragile creatures work for long. "The key stat for a relief pitcher," Herzog says, "is to find somebody with a history of getting the first batter out."

Lahti has gotten 17 straight first men out. "I have no idea why," he says.

Like Al Hrabosky in Kansas City, Lahti goes into an angry trance on the mound. "I talk to myself all the time and look right at the spot I want to throw."

Does he glare at hitters, too?

"No. Seems like every time I make eye contact, I get punished," he says.

"I'm here because of The Rat," adds Lahti. "He makes it easy to come to the park. Play hard, then have all the fun you want."

Life's just a cool breeze and a quick quip now in hot St. Louie. When you've already won as many games as some people thought you'd win all year, when the World Series is a fantasy with a face you can begin to glimpse, adrenaline starts filling in the gaps in the talent. If you make it to the depths of August without running out of gas, you usually can finish on fumes.