Beware of a baseball team that comes to the ballpark four hours early during a pennant race simply to play cards, then stays late after a defeat just to chew the fat and kick the cat.

If you can make work seem like fun, and pressure feel like pleasure, you've got it licked. Few have the knack, but Sparky Anderson is mastering it. He can manage himself and others, too. Who'll win the pennant? Sparky just tells his Detroit Tigers: "Who cares? Play."

At the head of the stretch, his Tigers look like the most relaxed team in baseball. They have what Anderson calls "the hidden thing" -- an ease of mind, a fatalistic approach toward the strain of performance that turns autumn misery into playful creativity.

The Tigers admit they don't have the pitching of the Toronto Blue Jays. But they have the same smooth way of doing business that marked the best Royals and Orioles champs of the last decade. They don't claim glamor. They just win with cohesion and dignity.

They have crept up silently all season until, suddenly, they have the best record in the game (84-54) and a schedule that puts their fate in their own hands: seven games in the last 11 days with Toronto, the club they lead by 1 1/2 games.

"You're going to have fun over here," 40-year-old slugger Darrell Evans told veteran lefty Frank Tanana. "We make it easy. There's no do or die, nobody fighting for the limelight."

"Sparky is the reason I came over here," says four-time batting champ Bill Madlock, who's batted .308 with 13 homers in 252 at-bats as a Tiger. "I've never seen a guy so easy. You can needle people. Other managers are in a state of shock when they lose. If they panic, you panic."

Says Anderson: "I told the team in spring training, 'Whatever you want to give me -- first place, second place, fifth place -- that is okay with me. But give it to me. Sure, we care if we win, but not to the point where we make it a misery. What is a 'winning year' anyway? The Brewers are fourth. I think they had a great year.

"I don't need aggravation no more. It's how you go about this thing that counts. I'd rather do it this way and finish second than have a bunch of jerks and win," says Anderson, who used to be as driven and anxious as anybody, but now prefers a pipe and homilies.

After the Tigers' World Series win in 1984, Anderson told his wife he had to decide whether he was going to stay in the game for life or retire. Finally, he told her: 'I want to stay. But not the way I been goin' about it. This is a lot of bull.' "

He vowed he'd make the game a daily joy, to himself and those around him, or else get out. Cynical snickers surrounded him. This was prematurely white Sparky talking -- the worry wart. He'd revert in days. But, sonofagun, he never did. Third-place finishes in '85 and '86 (with 84 and 87 wins) didn't bother him a bit. He fine-tuned his team and waited for breaks. Hey, can't win every year. This season, while the favored Yankees have fizzled under the pressure of their owner's bluster, the peaceful Tigers have seen the pieces fall quietly into place.

The Tigers haven't gotten much notice, mostly because they're old news. Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker just celebrated 10 years as a keystone combo -- the longest streak in history. They're still remarkable. Trammell is an MVP outsider with a .331 average and 91 RBI; he's now a cleanup man. Sweet Lou has 55 extra base hits, 102 runs scored and those old hands of satin.

Jack Morris and Kirk Gibson, two gifted Tigers who used to bristle at Hall of Fame expectations, have finally calmed down. Morris has no Cy Young Awards or mighty records, but he's been the best pitcher of the '80's (140-88). Gibson never became Mickey Mantle, never batted .300, hit 30 homers or had 100 RBI. But he's found his injury-prone, slump-nagged level. He'll get his 25-80-.280 again this year and he's at peace.

When veterans arrive, they feel they've come home to a place they can be treated like adults and appreciated. Doyle Alexander, a prickly type, is 5-0 with a 1.75 ERA since arriving from Atlanta. Walt Terrell, your basic bulldog, churns out the innings, wins his 15 games and doesn't worry about his 4.00-plus ERA.

Rookies and journeymen prosper even better under the low flame of Sparky. Take a spoon of Dave Bergman, a pinch of Larry Herndon and a dash of Mike Heath; you've got an all-purpose bench with a .301 average and 93 RBI in 581 at-bats.

Anderson says of rookies: "Get 'em young and you can do anything with 'em." And he's proving it. Whatever happened to Lance Parrish anyway? Kid catcher Matt Nokes has 28 homers and 77 RBI. Tall rookie right-hander Mike Henneman is the best thing in the bullpen: 9-1. "They've seen how the rest of us conduct ourselves," says Evans, who may have hit the most modest 375 home runs in baseball history.

Actually, Anderson creates an atmosphere where the likes of Evans and Madlock can teach by osmosis. "You're lucky to have leaders like a Darrell Evans or Pete Rose," says Anderson. "There's never been a manager who could get everybody to go {every day}. But there are players who can.

"Players like to talk to other players. They don't like to talk to somebody from above."

Look among the league leaders and you barely find a Tiger, except Trammell and Morris. Yet the Tigers have outscored the league by 157 runs and are on a pace to hit 230 home runs. Hey, the record's only 240. What's going on? How can every spot in the Detroit order from No. 2 through No. 8 have produced at least 20 home runs? How can the lowly No. 6-7-8 slots average 80 RBI each -- more than the No. 3-4-5 hitters?

Wherever you look, you find the same answer. Ol' lineup-shufflin', platoonin', bullpen hookin' Sparky is having his best year of pipe puffing, and he's had a few. He's casually granted so many days off that Trammell is the only Tiger who projects to 500 at-bats. Talk about fresh for September.

These Tigers hide the depth of their hunger well. But it is there. "I never even got to a playoff game until I was 37," says Evans. "I'm still beggin' to get back there again. You know, for a lot of us, 1984 went way too fast."