NEW YORK -- Even in the context of the New York Yankees, where a player's status is subject to daily evaluation and the whim of the owner, Juan Bonilla's journey has been remarkable, indeed. Another player promoted from Columbus, meaning another demotion to the Class AAA International League team. Big deal. That kind of movement happens every day.

But the Bonilla story is special. A little more than six weeks ago, the man was riding buses to towns you'd be hard-pressed to find on a road map. Three weeks later, he found himself playing second base and batting sixth for the big team at Yankee Stadium. "And," he noted with a mixture of pride and wonder, "in the midst of the biggest pennant race of my life."

The Yankees, before last night's game in Seattle against the Mariners, were in third place in the AL East, three games behind first-place Toronto, 2 1/2 games behind second-place Detroit, five games ahead of fourth-place Milwaukee.

And Bonilla is making his contribution, batting .267 (12 for 45), with one home run, six runs scored and three runs batted in.

He is no wide-eyed youngster stunned by his sudden success. Bonilla was an everyday player for the San Diego Padres early in the decade and a valuable utility player for the Baltimore Orioles as recently as last season. Yet he has had his share of reversals, not the least an assignment at the start of the season to Prince William in the Class A Carolina League.

"I've had a lot of ups and downs in my career," Bonilla said. "This year, it's been mainly ups." But only because there was nowhere else to go."

An ankle injured during an offseason workout and a subsequent operation so hampered him in spring training that the Yankees offered him a coaching position with their Prince William club in Woodbridge, Va. "I worked with the right-handed hitters and the infielders," he said. "I taught them how to turn the double play and {proper} positioning and showed them how to run the bases. I don't run that fast, but I know how to run the bases. I haven't missed one yet."

And he smiled the smile of a man suddenly touched by good fortune. "We experienced some problems around second base," Bonilla recalled, "and they decided to activate me. I started playing every day. All of a sudden, we started having problems all over the organization. Middle infielders began dropping. I guess I was the healthiest guy around."

Bonilla began moving up the ladder. He played three games at Albany-Colonie in the AA Eastern League, then was promoted to Columbus, where he played five games. He reported to the Yankees in Minneapolis during the third week of July, completing a two-week rise to the top that may be unprecedented in club annals. "Most guys go to Triple A to be rehabilitated," he said, shrugging. "I went to Class A."

Not that he was complaining. Oh, no. The experience served only to make him more thankful for this opportunity. "I'm content," he said, looking around the major league clubhouse. "I'm just happy to be here. If they want to play me, I'll be the best player I can be. If they don't want to play me, I'll be the best cheerleader you ever saw.

"To be here for the playoffs, the pennant and the World Series, that's my dream," Bonilla said. "I don't know if I'll be here. I don't know if I'll be here tomorrow. But I'm here now."

He even has a permanent name-plate over his locker, a residue of the 1985 season, when he played eight games for the Yankees after batting .330 at Columbus.

Bonilla did not figure in New York's plans a year ago. He was fortunate to sign with the Orioles, who were so thin in the infield, he became a semi-regular at second and third base. While in Baltimore, he also acquired a T-shirt he wears under his uniform to this day.

The message on the shirt is "Whenever." According to Bonilla, Juan Beniquez was "Just in Case" and Jackie Gutierrez was "Sometimes." The utility players adopted those attitudes with the Orioles in 1986. "To me," Bonilla said, "{'Whenever'} means I'm ready. I wear it every day, as you can probably tell."

There may be no other organization in baseball where readiness is more prized, where a man is as likely to start the day in one league and finish it in another. Bonilla has learned to be grateful for each sunrise this season. He was second among National League second basemen in fielding average in 1983, and the next year he was unemployed.

"I couldn't get a job and I was healthy then," he said, marveling at the twists and turns of a baseball career. "This year {after being released by the Orioles}, I was hurt and I got a job."

A job that has led to the top, to Yankee Stadium, to an AL pennant race. He folded his hands in prayer when reminded of the six-hour bus rides he was making only a month ago.

Some day, he decided, he won't mind those trips nearly so much. He enjoyed coaching enough to consider it a real alternative at the end of his playing career, but he believes he has much more to give on the field -- although he holds no illusions about a long career at second base in New York. Still, he thinks he can be of help to a team in a pennant race.

And it is no small accomplishment that the man is here, now, in New York. In the words of Mel Allen, how about that?