NEW YORK -- Special happenings inspire special baseball teams in special seasons. Right now, the New York Yankees feel very special.

In a game a dozen days ago, the Yankees trailed the American League-champion Boston Red Sox, 9-0; Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens was on the mound for Boston. In one inning, the Yankees scored 11 runs and won.

"Unbelievable. The inning took forever," said New York Manager Lou Piniella.

Then, nine days ago, the Yankees squandered an 11-4 lead to the first-place Toronto Blue Jays and fell behind, 14-11. Since the Blue Jays had come to Yankee Stadium earlier in the month and swept three from New York, big season-altering mischief seemed afoot.

Yet the Yankees pulled out an amazing 15-14 victory on the strength of a grand slam by Dave Winfield off Toronto relief ace Tom Henke. New York then swept the three-game series and sent the Blue Jays into an eight-game losing streak from which they are just beginning to recover. Symbolic enough?

Finally, on Tuesday night here, the Minnesota Twins, the Americam League West leaders, had a 7-0 lead in the seventh inning. The Yankees, who hadn't scored a run in 16 innings, got seven in the seventh, then five in the eighth to win, 12-7. "It wasn't a rally," said Piniella. "It was an explosion. Against Clemens, we had some seeing-eye hits. This time, just rockets. It's the fastest 12 runs I ever saw in the big leagues. The whole thing took less time than the one inning against Boston."

"In 24 years in the majors, I've seen very few games like any of those," said Yankees coach Jeff Torborg, a former Dodgers and Angels catcher and Indians manager. "To win three of them in less than two weeks is so unbelievable you don't have words for it. The Boston game -- I saw it but I still don't believe it. The Toronto game was a total madhouse out in the bullpen, then all of a sudden, we'd won. And last night was just, 'Boom, boom, boom.' Call it team chemistry or destiny or whatever, but there's no doubt when a team accomplishes great things, games like that always seem to play a big part. You get the feeling it's your year. That makes you dangerous."

Suddenly, the Yankees team that trailed Toronto by 2 1/2 games less than a month ago now has a 4 1/2-game lead and a 53-32 record. Just to show the value of momentum, the Yankees gave another illustration yesterday at Yankee Stadium. The Minnesota Twins scored a run and had the bases loaded in the first inning, but Rick Rhoden struck out Tom Brunansky to escape a big inning. By the time three Yankees had batted, three Yankees had scored -- all on Don Mattingly's homer. What might have been a quick and fairly easy win for the Twins was just as quickly the beginning of a 13-4 crushing by New York.

The manner of those victories is not really the biggest pinstripe shock this season. The makeup and personality of the Yankees are the true eye openers. Scan the New York roster and only one big-money free agent can be found -- Winfield; and he arrived half a career ago, so he barely counts. The rest of these Yankees came through savvy trades, patient player development or relatively cheap acquisition of castoff players.

"The nucleus of this team has stayed the same," said Piniella, meaning the five core Yankees all-stars -- Winfield, Mattingly, Rickey Henderson, Willie Randolph and Dave Righetti. "But we've tried to acquire people in the last two years who fit in, as opposed to stockpiling talent. We want players who like the situation here and want to contribute.

"We have role players; people who are happy to be here. There's no bickering, no fighting. It's businesslike. Not like before. When somebody leaves, there's no more of that, 'I'm glad to get the hell out of there.' When we trade for or sign a player, it's for a specific job. When he arrives, he has to prove to us that he can't do it, rather than coming in to prove that he can live up to some huge salary . . . We're consciously staying away from the aging star. We also dip down into the farm system frequently and give people a chance to play."

Just as Piniella finishes talking about the changed Yankees, the happy Yankees, the sane Yankees, the phone on the manager's desk rings, as if on cue. Yes, it was a message to call owner George Steinbrenner III. 'Yeah, I Get Pushed'

"He's just as hard {to work for}, I'm sure, as he was for all the other managers here," said Piniella. "George likes to get involved. I've gotta decipher and do the things I think are best for the ballclub. Yes, I take suggestions. The amazing thing is, at times, he makes great suggestions. And I tell him so. He's been in baseball a long time now and had a lot of success. Yeah, I get pushed . . . But I've been here 14 years and I know how it works. I can roll a little better."

Piniella seems able to maintain his dignity better than any Yankees manager since Dick Howser in 1980. He stands up for his accomplishments in 1986, for instance. "We won 90 games when we were decimated by injuries. We built and rebuilt our rotation. We were the only team in the history of baseball to win 90 or more games with only one 10-game winner . . . People said that if we hadn't swept the Red Sox in the final series of the year that I'd have been fired. I don't know about that. But I felt that if I hadn't been rehired, it would have been an injustice. I felt that I did a hell of a job for a rookie manager."

The Yankees appreciate Piniella's skills in mediating between them and their emotional owner. And they suspect that he's backed them more often and more forcefully than he will publicly admit. "I think Lou takes a lot of heat from the top for us," said Mattingly, adding, with a wry smile, "I can't believe it's just stopped."

Ah, silence -- or near silence, anyway -- it's wonderful. Recently, Steinbrenner even rewarded Winfield, who carried the team for weeks when both Mattingly and Henderson were hurt, by retracting his comment that the outfielder was "Mr. May" -- a man who couldn't perform under pressure as Reggie Jackson once could.

Steinbrenner has every reason to be delighted. For months, critics have mocked him, pointing out that, for the past five seasons, his spending has not bought him a single flag; yet, last winter, when he had a chance to sign Jack Morris of Detroit, he passed it up.

Now, almost all of Steinbrenner's offseason decisions look as blessed as his checkbook gambles seemed jinxed. Instead of buying Morris, New York traded for Rhoden, a consistent veteran who had won 121 games in 13 years -- never more than 16 in a season. After his victory yesterday, he's 11-5, third in the American League in victories, just one fewer than Morris. Suddenly, Rhoden and his alleged scuffball are so effective that umpires, under orders of the AL president, accost him at the mound and examine his glove for sandpaper and such.

It's surprising how yet another of Tommy John's pitching teammates -- it's a long tradition going back to Don Sutton -- has suddenly acquired better and more suspect stuff.

As for the amazing 44-year-old John, who's been released outright twice in the past five years and sent back to the minors three times, the gimpy lefty is 7-3 (4.25 ERA) and is throwing his sinker as hard as he did in 1982 when he won 14 for the division-champion California Angels. The 271-game winner saved the New York rotation until unsigned free agent Ron Guidry (1-4, 2.80 ERA) returned May 1.

The Yankees also dealt for Charles Hudson, a disappointment in Philadelphia. After remedial work on his mechanics with a battalion of New York coaches, he began the season 6-0; even after a slump that sent him back to Columbus for resharpening, Hudson is 7-2 with a 3.70 ERA.

Once, the Yankees got new players who had something to prove to New York City -- like why they were worth all that money. Now, the Yankees search for players with something to prove to themselves -- like Hudson and John. First among those in this category is Gary Ward, a slugger who hit only five homers in 380 at-bats last year and had to listen to rumors that his pop was gone at 33. Steinbrenner prefered to look at his .316 average last season and his reputation as a hard-nosed, heady player. Thus far, Ward has 10 homers and 61 RBI. Without him to help Winfield when Henderson and Mattingly went down, the Yankees almost certainly would not be in first place.

These are the days when former Yankees suddenly want to come home. Back to Sweet Lou. Back to the Big Ballpark in the Big Apple. And even back to George III. Rick Cerone (who once cursed the owner to his face in the clubhouse), John and Mike Easler (traded for Hudson) are all on the field. Even coach Mike Ferraro -- the scapegoat of the 1980 playoffs -- has returned. Sweetness and Light

"Now, we have people who are willing to be role players," said Mattingly. "We've kept the negative down -- the emphasis isn't on one guy taking another guy's job."

Now, Claudell Washington (.294), Ron Kittle (.305) and Easler (.288) can coexist with part-time duty. Cerone doesn't moan when the boss trades old Joe Niekro for former .300-hitting catcher Mark Salas, who hit his first Yankee homer -- off the right field third-deck facade -- yesterday.

In the midst of all this sweetness and light stands Piniella -- "deciphering" Steinbrenner, trying not to blow a cork when Henderson takes weeks to nurse his way back from a hamstring pull and juggling a starting rotation that could blow to smithereens at any time.

"I've always been a gambler. I don't mind the idea of change. If something ain't workin', why is it a gamble to change it?" said Pinniella. "On the other hand, the most important thing I've learned is that a manager can't have too much patience. How do you balance those two -- change and patience? It's a fine line, I tell ya.

"For one thing, I never make a personnel decision after a game; always the next morning over a cup of coffee after a night's sleep . . . I still have a temper. I can still get hot," said the man who is famed for semi-comic rages. "I exhaust all avenues. But finally you get a gut feeling, 'We've got to do something.' "

These days, the sun seems to shine on the Yankees, come what may. Randolph (.319) is having his career season. Mike Pagliarulo continues to bring power (15 homers) to third base. Dennis Rasmussen remains a solid starter (7-4). Even scrappy little Wayne Tolleson, thought to be a very weak link at shortstop, continues to impress Yankees coaches with a certain indefinable winning knack. If you think this team isn't good, well, just look at skinny Tim Stoddard, the mountain of a man who ate himself out of Baltimore, Chicago and San Diego.

"These players here are hungry and happy," said Piniella, using two words seldom before applied to the Yankees of the '80's. "Yes, these guys are really after it."

From the clubhouse come violent shouts. "Why don't you tell 'em about the million dollars in the Swiss bank account?" bellows Cerone. "You're lyin' and you know it," yells Stoddard. "Faithful to your wife, my foot," hollers Rhoden.

Just in time. Another riot in the Yankees clubhouse? Piniella never moves a muscle. "Naw," he said, "they're just watching Oliver North testify."