Gene Mauch wears no rings. The wedding band is gone because his wife Nina, whom he met in junior high, died last summer of cancer. There's no World Series ring because Mauch's 40-year career has been a wilderness of disappointments. No man ever managed so long without a pennant.

About his wife's death, Mauch has nothing to say. He is the most severe, intelligent and formal of men. He loved her his whole life. She knew it. That's that.

About those 16 years as a player and 24 more as a manager -- with never a trip to the Series -- Mauch also keeps a silence as deep as his wounds.

No team ever collapsed as badly as close to the wire as his '64 Phillies. Ten losses in a row. Mauch can remember every play of "the thing." Those 10 defeats are the stigmata of a violent-tempered tactician who, more than any other manager since John McGraw, made baseball into an intellectual's secular religion.

Three years ago, misery repeated itself. Mauch's California Angels made history: the first team to blow a playoff series after leading by two games.

Mauch retired, almost in disgrace. An overmanager, too smart and stubborn for his own good. A dead-ball genius lost in a home-run age. He'd won a ring he wouldn't wear.

"I felt like I'd never manage another game. I lost interest in it and everything else about that time," he says. "I was so indifferent that I was indifferent about being indifferent."

Last fall, the Angels' brass, convinced their rich team was fainthearted and brain-dead, asked Mauch to return and inspire them. His job: to make baseball's most careless collection of fading stars care again.

To do that, he had to care again.

"I'm grateful that baseball revived my interest in something. And that has rekindled an interest in everything," Mauch says. "If you don't know what I'm talking about, I can't tell you."

The day the vets reported, Mauch took them to a remote spot to talk. Nobody's leaked yet. But Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich, Rod Carew, Doug DeCinces, Brian Downing and Bob Boone have been caught doing high fives in public.

"I don't get involved with that because I can't reach that high," Mauch says with the sort of self-deprecating touch that was utterly beyond him in the old days.

When Mauch left the game, not everyone mourned his going. Vain and hot-tempered in his youth, and only marginally mellowed, Mauch made the worst strategic error an exceptional person can commit: he acted superior.

Not deliberately. Just by nature. Small talk annoyed him. Insincerity was beneath him. The slipshod enraged him.

These days, Mauch gives the kind word, the generous answer to a silly question, even the affectionate pat, that he withheld so long. Mortality teaches humility, they say.

Always the innovative thinker, never the feeler, Mauch finally has learned how to relinquish enough control to admit, "I can't win a pennant by myself, on brains alone. I need you."

In return, the Angels have committed themselves to the uncool goal of hustle and risk. Men who made their names and fortunes in other towns, men who came to Anaheim to kick back and enjoy their last few years, have chosen to fall in love with the high cost of winning one last time. Mauch has shown his heart. They've rediscovered their pride.

The Angels, picked for the pits, are in first place by 2 1/2 games over Kansas City in the American League West.

Ask Mauch where he'd wear that Series ring if he gets it this year and he blurts, "Any place but my ear." Putting his guard back up, he adds, "Oh, no, that's bush. I didn't say that."

This is a man, you see, with private standards in all matters. When coaching third base, he never shook the hand or patted the rear of a home-run hitter in mid-trot. "I clapped. It was his home run, not mine."

A self-flagellating perfectionist who kept detailed longhand notebook recapitulations of all 3,600 games he managed, Mauch, at 59, finally may have learned to forgive himself. "Nothing could ever tear me up again," he says.

This year's Angels are an ideal testament to Mauch. They've barely outscored their opponents (by 18 runs), yet they're 17 games above .500. Last season, they were awful in one-run games (22-30). Now, they're the best: 28-10. These are classic great-manager stats.

Even Mauch's flaws may be suitable to these particular flawed Angels.

True, his team leads the league in sacrifices; but California's strengths -- defense and bullpen -- make it possible to play close-to-the-vest, low-scoring games. True, he still juggles his lineup constantly -- making a "Mauchery" of your team, it's called. But these aged Angels need rest.

"This is the most delicate thing I've ever done," Mauch says of nursing his old men to good seasons. "As long as they're mad at me about being rested, I know they're not tired."

Mauch has always fostered bullpens built on nobodies. He's done it again.

Donnie Moore, 31, was a 12-season mediocrity, adrift in the compensation pool. Now: 1.62 ERA, 31 wins-plus-saves. Stewart Cliburn, 28, was released in '82 and even sent to the minors this spring. Now: 1.80 ERA.

Mauch's Angels are a precarious mix of fragile bodies and complex psyches. "If people could see what Doug DeCinces goes through each day to get his bad back ready to play," Mauch says. "Grich and Jackson the same. Players take far better care of themselves now."

Give effort. Get kudos. Done deal.

Even with the stretch-drive addition of three talented bad actors (fatsos Al Holland and John Candelaria, plus George Hendrick), the Angels are a dicey bet to win their division, let alone a pennant.

Now that Mauch has, perhaps, the full range of skills to win a pennant, does he have the team?

Will this man, already so tangled up with his long history, cross his own tracks again?

In one of baseball's eeriest recurrences, Mauch faced the same tactical decision in the '82 playoffs that he'd made in the final week of September 1964. After two decades of defending the way he'd used Jim Bunning and Chris Short then, how could he use Tommy John and Bruce Kison differently?

Does a comparable irony await him?

These Angels are a staggering, lurching team, prone to ominous drubbings. They'll fret their fans until the final days. But, for once, Mauch doesn't seem to be among those worrying himself sick.

"There aren't enough hours in the day for me to worry about Gene Mauch," he says. "Either I know what I'm doing or I don't."