NEW YORK -- The rule in baseball is that stars should retire on top, or somewhere near it, with their dignity intact and their image still resplendent. Those who linger interminably, bouncing from team to team, injury to injury, and folly to folly, deserve the ridicule they get.

Tommy John is the exception who proves the rule. He never worried about acquiring dignity, considering modesty far more important; and he was so mediocre for so long and excellent for so short a time, he never really managed to acquire a hero's image. Embarrassment has been his companion for a quarter-century, so he laughs along with the rest when he disables himself covering first base or slips and breaks his hand playing catch alone.

As his recompense, it seems John is to be allowed to go on forever. At age 44 and in his 25th major league season if you count the one he missed with a supposed career-ending injury, he'll probably never get to 300 wins or Cooperstown. Who cares? Certainly not John. He seems blithely determined to keep sinkerballing (and some say scuffballing) the New York Yankees toward a pennant, carrying baseball's most glorious franchise on the sport's least impressive shoulders.

Tommy John, who pitched for Modesto, Madison and Fort Lauderdale in cameo rehabilitation stints the past two seasons, was the Yankees' opening day starter in Yankee Stadium this season. Tommy John -- a man who has worn seven big league uniforms, who has been outright released once, who has been a free agent three times (he signed with the Yankees in that capacity last November), who even retired once to coach college ball -- is 7-3 at the moment and rock solid in the New York rotation. Why not? While almost every other pitcher in baseball give up gophers, John kills 'em. Can't hit what you can't excavate. A long blast off John only bounces twice before it gets through the infield.

What's the big surprise? John was 5-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 71 innings last year. Only injuries stopped him then. When healthy, he was as good as ever. So he's really 12-6 around the corner. Get accustomed to having him back. John's already talking about next season.

Usually, when we see a baseball player who simply won't retire, who insists on making comebacks even though he's been rejected, we wish he would just, please, take himself off the stage. Seriously, Reggie, Tom, Steve, Don and Phil, aren't a plaque in the Hall of Fame and a multimillion-dollar bank account enough for you guys? Aren't 300 wins or 500 home runs sufficient in the adulation department? After you've gotten the last conceivable milestone record, why don't you leave gracefully?

John, however, completely escapes this category. His ego has always been so small he could hide it in his glove. A funny, eccentric chatterbox, he always was loved by everybody, but nobody ever bothered to salute. Though he is 25th in the history of baseball in games won (271), nobody's holding any breath for 300. John was disabled three times last year and the Yankees hold their breath on every rocket through the box at the man.

As for Cooperstown, it's probably just a romantic fancy. Would the facts stand for it? John had one 15-victory season in his first dozen. Nine years after setting foot in the majors, he was 84-91; we're talking long, long-term mediocrity. His lengthy and barely distinguished career was considered over, ended by injury, before he ever figured out his true pitching style and finally became a star -- well, a semi-star -- for four lovely twilight years when he went 80-35.

Then, just as he discovered what it was like to pitch in the World Series (three times) and the playoffs (five), the magic left him and age tore him down. Since the end of 1980, he's pitched for the Yankees, Angels, A's and now the Yankees again. His 57-62 mark tells the truth. He's hung on by his fingernails for years. Once, he even asked to pitch for a friend's semipro team. That's why baseball insiders are so happy (and dazzled) to see him now.

"I swear he's throwing as well now as he was in '80 {when he won 22}," says catcher Rick Cerone. "It's hard to believe. In fact, he's got two new pitches. A cut fastball on the fists to righties and a change-up. So, you might have to say he's got better stuff now. One thing we know for sure. As long as he can throw a ball, it will sink."

"He never threw hard, but now he's throwing just as not-hard as he ever did," says bullpen coach Jeff Torborg. "People ask what difference it makes whether he throws a sinker 76 miles an hour or 83. Well, a harder sinker is a heavier sinker. And he's got it back."

How did John get reborn last season at age 43, a birthday Steve Carlton and Joe Niekro haven't even reached yet? He stopped acting like an old man, for one thing, and started lifting weights two years ago. Not three times a week, like some players, but every day -- even in the morning before he pitches at night. "I discovered all those 'lat' muscles in the back below the shoulder. I wasn't even using them," says John.

Just as vital, John unearthed the mechanical flaw that restored his money pitch -- the sinker. Or, as frisking umpires might say, his defaced spheroid. Maybe Tommy doesn't cheat. Perhaps Gaylord didn't, either. It's possible it wasn't even John who suggested that Rick Rhoden leave notes in his glove for the umps who have been examining him of late. Messages like, "Right church. Wrong pew," and "Warmer." Whether or not sandpaper is next to godliness for an old hurler, it's certain that any pitch -- legal or nay -- requires good delivery.

"I was totally messed up," John says. "I knew it, but that didn't solve it. Gene Mauch {his manager on the Angels before his 1985 release} told me, 'In your best years, it looked like you were handing the ball to the catcher. You're not now,' " says John. "He couldn't find words I could translate into mechanics."

Finally, an old coach, Tom Morgan, told John, "Come over to my house and we'll play catch. Let me show you something I think I see." When you make friends as John does, advice arrives like the morning mail. What Morgan saw was a frightened old pitcher trying to be so fine -- allowing himself two inches of error, not a foot -- he was cutting himself off, not extending, not pulling down through the ball at the last instant. The old knack returned almost instantly.

Since then, gravy. Now, John only worries about developing more new pitches and convincing others he really should jog and sweat more than young pitchers -- running alone in a conditioning program they won't touch. He'd also like to pitch live batting practice to subs, discuss the fine points of "getting inside" on the fists with them. Heck, they might learn something. But they don't want their timing destroyed by John's craft. So, he shrugs and fine-tunes in games.

None of this, absolutely none of it, surprises John. In baseball, he's old and wise, not old and obsessed. "The only thing that ever burns inside me," John says, "is Szechwan food." As he sees it, the moral of his career is that, if it can happen in baseball, it'll happen to Tommy John. So why stop now?

John's first game was against the Washington Senators in 1963 with a kid Cleveland shortstop named Dick Howser behind him. John has been traded three times. Once as a young throw-in. Everybody talked about the Tommie Agee for Rocky Colavito deal; John going to Chicago from the Indians was in the small print. He was traded from the White Sox to Los Angeles in his prime head-up for a star -- Dick Allen. And he was traded by the Yankees to California in 1982 as late-season pennant-race insurance in exchange for a kid who turned out to be stellar -- Dennis Rasmussen, who led the Yankees last year at 18-6.

John even claims to be baseball's first right-handed southpaw. In 1974 with the Dodgers, he had a tendon from his right forearm transplanted into his left elbow. Nobody had ever tried that; the surgeon told him flatly he would never pitch again. Instead, John, who had never won more than 16 games, came back and won 20 in three of the next five seasons. His golf game even got better; a weakened right side, don't you know.

That operation, so long ago, reminds him of Scott McGregor of the Orioles, a very John-like pitcher who is on the brink of release by a team that considers him washed up at 33. John never came back from his historic surgery until he was 33. All his best deeds came afterward -- and all those still to come.

"I want to talk to Scotty," says John. "Tom Morgan and I watched three hours of old film of him the other night. Mechanically, he looked like a completely different pitcher than he does now. In the '79 and '83 World Series, he looked like a slow-motion version of the pitcher he is now. He's in such a rush he can't do anything."