Once, and not so long ago, baseball was the game that could be played by the person of less than superhuman gifts. Big league lore is full of fat sluggers, flatfooted pitchers, shrimpy shortstops and swaybacked catchers. Babe Herman played right field with his forehead and, at first base, Dick Stuart was "Dr. Strangeglove."

While speed and grace weren't essential, neither was special size or strength. Whitey Ford was a tidy 5 feet 10, Warren Spahn weighed 172 pounds and even Willie Mays, that colossus, was 5-10 1/2, 170 pounds -- just a natural middleweight if he'd trained himself to prizefighting shape. You had to have something on a ballfield, to be sure, but you could overcome the lack of almost any one thing.

Those days are ending, if they're not already over. The major leaguer of the 1980s is a different breed of cat from the ballplayer of just a dozen years ago. The entire game has changed, on the field, in the dugout and the front office. Those changes will be the focus of this series of articles.

From the daily lineup, which is now full of all-around decathletes, to the starting pitching rotation, populated by a new breed of giants, to the modern bullpen, where everybody's become a long-, middle- or short-relief specialist, the player of today is distinctly different. In each of these three areas, the changes are as controversial as they are dramatic. That's the consensus drawn from interviews with 10 major league general managers.

The most obvious change is in the everyday regular. He cuts like a halfback, leaps like a basketball star and runs like a trackman. He's into weight work and serious diet and could run the majority of NFL players into a puddle of sweat. Check out "This Week In Baseball" for the acrobatic plays that have become commonplace. The next Eddie Stanky better try to be a jockey.

Players such as Rickey Henderson, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Willie Wilson, Brett Butler, Tommy Herr, Julio Franco, Tony Gwynn, Juan Samuel and dozens more emphasize speed in their play but also evoke the muscled gymnast. Others such as Darryl Strawberry, Kirk Gibson, Chili Davis, Alvin Davis, Phil Bradley, Bill Doran, Kirby Puckett, Von Hayes, Wally Joyner and Jose Canseco give more bang for the buck. Couldn't Gibson catch passes in the NFL? Strawberry drive the lane on Larry Bird? Canseco trade punches with a heavyweight?

"Sleek, trimmed down, but still powerful" is the way Toronto General Manager Pat Gillick describes the players his Blue Jays, who led the American League in wins in 1985, have at almost every position. Look at their outfield -- George Bell, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield -- and you see the prototypes of the era. All are young (26), have not a trace of fat, can hit home runs or steal bases and have howitzer arms. Toronto teammates Tony Fernandez, Damaso Garcia and Willie Upshaw all seem cut from different parts of the same bolt of cloth.

"I've been looking for the superior athlete with a great arm and speed for 20 years. But then I've always been with AstroTurf teams since 1966," said Gillick, who arrived at the inception of the turf trend.

"We're raising a society of giants, especially in sports," said John Schuerholz, general manager of the World Series champion Kansas City Royals. "We're redoubling all the biological effects of a healthy society with our new training techniques and diets . . .

"They're not necessarily better baseball players, but the star player today is a better athlete and a better ballplayer, too."

"We'll take the chance that [the great athlete] can learn the rest," said Schuerholz, citing the superb Wilson as an example of a raw football talent, untutored in baseball, who became a batting champion.

Variety of Opinions

Baseball still is divided into new wave teams; e.g., the St. Louis Cardinals, who are in love with speed and defense, and other more tradition-minded organizations that revere the home run and the heady finesse player who could only thrive playing on natural grass fields.

"Clubs like the Orioles and Angels really should not be able to win on AstroTurf," said Toronto's Gillick. "Guys like Doug DeCinces, Brian Downing and Bobby Grich, or some of the Orioles, really get out of their element in a speed game. They don't have the lateral movement to cut off the alleys or take the extra base on offense. Turf teams have an [inherent] advantage. It's easier for the pure athlete to adjust to the grass game than it is for the bulkier power-oriented player to adjust to our turf.

"It's weird to see a team that plays on turf, but still has the old-style player," said Gillick. "Like the Minnesota Twins with Hrbek, Gaetti, Smalley, Brunansky."

The ideal, of course, is "the player who can hit some home runs and still move. But those are hard animals to lay your hands on," said Gillick. The Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle types may be an exotic species, but the game is chock full of passable poor man's facsimiles.

"What drives me crazy," said Kansas City's Schuerholz, "is thinking of all those 56th men suited up on big NCAA football teams who are wonderful athletes but are never going to play a down. They get on weights, bulk up and we lose 'em forever. There are so many potential ballplayers who are attracted by the hoopla of college football. It's tough to convince a kid to turn down a chance to run on the field in front of beautiful cheerleaders with 60,000 people cheering and growling. If the teen-ager has a choice between the Notre Dame Golden Dome and a bus ride in Kingsport, Tenn., we lose, even though we know that he has a vastly better chance for a far longer and richer career in baseball."

Another GM said, "It's more difficult to attract the top black athlete. The more immediate gratification is not in baseball. It's not the shortest route, though the ultimate payoff is much higher. We go where the talent is and where it's motivated to play baseball -- Latin America."

"Of the 175 players we have under contract, 25 are from the Dominican Republic," said Oakland General Manager Sandy Alderson. "Other clubs, like Toronto, Houston and Pittsburgh, also think that the raw talent is in Latin America." Last season, nine players from one small town -- San Pedro de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic -- appeared in the playoffs.

Most modern team-builders would echo Alderson when he said, "We scout tools, not previous baseball performance." Yet, a minority still despises the trend.

"I hate AstroTurf," said Texas General Manager Tom Grieve, a former big leaguer. He hates the bizarre brand of baseball it engenders, complete with chop hits, ground balls that scoot to the wall for triples and Texas league bloops that take 30-foot-high hops to become standup doubles. The excellent athlete who is basically converted to baseball never catches up with the subtle skills -- built over a lifetime -- that traditionalists feel are essential to the sport.

"I really think we knew how to play the game better in the old days," said Grieve. "I look at my own kids and the only time they play is in an organized league. Don't you learn more about something if you do it because you love it? Now, it's just another kind of piano practice. I look at the 6- and 7-year-olds with all the fathers barking at them -- they've got to be miniature nervous wrecks."

Grieve even resists the ubiquitous trend toward drafting and signing the "best available athlete," a phrase borrowed from football.

"I liked Mike Ditka's approach in the NFL," said Grieve. "When he coached at Dallas, they believed their computer could measure everything. But Ditka always fought the computer and said, 'I want the guys who can play the game.' And when he got to Chicago, he went for the Mike Singletarys who weren't the right shape but they had heart and an intuition for the game."

Conditioning Is Watchword

On two points, everybody agrees.

First, "the whole physical culture process has been improved -- nutrition, work habits, year-round training," said Harry Dalton, general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. "Even in the mid-'70s your players still had offseason jobs. Nobody worked all winter to improve his body. Now, when a $300,000 to $600,000 season at the end of your career is worth 10 times as much as the early seasons of your career, you see the 32-33-year-old player working like a demon so he can last until he's 39 . . . Do you know that Bobby Doerr retired at 32? [Actually, 33; Al Rosen did quit at 32.] Nobody will ever do that again."

Second, "weight training can transform players of all types. It has made Jose Canseco," said Oakland's Alderson. "He added 35 to 40 pounds and that extra bat speed put him over the top." A decade ago, weights were suspect; 20 years ago, anathema.

"These guys don't sell used cars or labor in a warehouse in the offseason anymore," said Hank Peters, the Baltimore Orioles' executive. "They work on their bodies. To see a [rotund] Floyd Rayford is unusual now." Even Peters admits that the Orioles of 1969 to 1971 -- The Best Damn Team in Baseball -- were not nearly as special a group of pure athletes as the fourth-place Orioles of 1985. They just played better baseball.

In the age of guaranteed multiyear contracts, one new twist has arrived.

"Sure, we look for certain God-given gifts," said New York Mets General Manager Frank Cashen, who may have the sport's best team at the moment. "But where we may put much more emphasis than other teams is in personality makeup. We study . . . tests that show qualities like motivation, leadership, confidence. Nowadays, motivation and discipline has to be more self-imposed."

The game's most controversial trend is the 1980s infatuation with huge pitchers. Walter Johnson, the Big Train, who was 6 feet 1, would be considered a shrimp today. The average height now is a fraction under 6-3 and growing -- Dennis Rasmussen of the Yankees at 6-7, 230 and Roger Clemens of the Red Sox at 6-5, 220 have the physique they're all dreaming of. As Milwaukee's Dalton said, "We've switched to the thinking that the guy 6-4 is four inches more impressive-looking out there. He's more likely to have the exceptional fastball. When you come up with one, it's worth all the tribulation."

"We're looking for 6-4, 195 pounds," said Grieve.

"There are less minor leagues today so we can't use the Branch Rickey theory of signing everybody, throwing 'em up against a wall and seeing what sticks. We have to be more selective initially," said Oakland's Alderson. "So, we want the big pitcher -- at least 6-2, and 6-5 is no problem. The offspeed stuff can be taught."

Teams such as the Twins, Yankees, Mariners, Red Sox, Brewers, Rangers, Braves, Cubs, Phillies, Reds, Astros, Expos, Pirates and Giants have gone so size crazy that they look as if they're prepping for a 10-man tag team wrestling show. At 6-2, 210 pounds, Nolan Ryan was only the ninth-biggest pitcher on the Astros' 40-man preseason roster.

Go back a dozen years and on the combined roster staffs of the Dodgers, Giants, Cardinals, Mets and Cubs -- a total of 99 pitchers -- there were only three men listed as 6-4. The human race hasn't evolved that fast.

What's fascinating is that the teams with the consistently best pitching of recent years -- e.g., the Dodgers, Mets, Blue Jays, Royals and Orioles -- not only reject this Big Pitcher theory but think it's dead backward.

"We have done a study of the size of winning pitchers, and we've concluded that we want to go against the trend. We don't like big pitchers. For starters, anybody higher than 6-4, you can have," said Schuerholz. "We think that 6-1, 180 pounds to 6-4, 205 is ideal." The Royals' top low-minors prospect, Scott Bankhead, is 5-9.

"We don't knock the 90-mile-an-hour fastball, but we also want to know if he can throw strikes, change speeds and throw three or four pitches," said Peters of Baltimore. "The bigger the pitcher, the less likely he can do those other three things . . . You wouldn't take a second look at Bret Saberhagen if you judged by physique [6-1, 160]."

"It's hard to keep a big pitcher compact. They have a tendency to fly open and not have a consistent delivery," said Gillick of Toronto. "The pitcher who's 5-11 to 6-2 is the best."

"Maybe we'll change our whole philosophy," said Grieve, laughing, when told how successful the teams are that disagree with him.

Specialization: Pros and Cons

Almost as touchy an area is the growing tendency to turn young pitchers into long- or middle-inning relief pitchers.

"Everybody was a starter years ago," said Peters. "Now, after a couple of years at the minor league level, you try to identify a pitcher's proper role." The Orioles have succeeded in getting useful work from pitchers such as Sammy Stewart, Nate Snell, Brad Havens and Rich Bordi who failed as starters in their own or other systems.

"When you see a team win the division title with a long man like Dennis Lamp who goes 11-0 you say, 'Hey, they're stealing something. Maybe we should do that,' " said Dalton."The problem comes when the specialists force your starters out of games too soon. If you start programming your staff so the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth men are sharp, then you're programming the worst at the expense of the best. We still want nine-inning pitchers."

There's the rub. Not everybody does. If you'd prefer seven-inning starters, then developing several solid relievers becomes an organizational priority.

"Going nine is overrated, especially for young pitchers," said Grieve. "When anybody under 25 throws 130 pitches, there's enormous chance of impingement syndrome in the rotator cuff area. I've had a statistician prove to me that the damage to a pitcher is directly related to how many times he throws when his arm is tired. We put strict pitch limits on young starters.

"I want to see how long Dan Petry and Jack Morris [of Detroit] last after all their innings at early ages. Also, let's look back in a few years and see how some of the other young staffs in this league, who believe in going nine, do compared to our youngsters like Ed Correa and Jose Guzman."

Amid all this flux and fulmination, it's nice to know that one position on the roster hasn't changed. We may have giant pitchers and semi-late-inning "setup men" in the bullpen and back-flipping shortstops and Mr. Olympus outfielders who could throw the javelin in 1988 in Seoul. But nobody has found a way to make a catcher who doesn't look like a refugee from a glue factory. Next: The Managers