BALTIMORE -- One of life's consolations is that everybody gets to choose his own definition of a happy ending.

Many people might not think managing the 1990 New York Yankees is a happy culmination to a 25-year quest. Stump Merrill, who's come from humble baseball beginnings to the seat of Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel, begs to differ.

"I'm just proud as hell to be here and respectful to the people who made it possible," said Merrill, who took one of the most circuitous odysseys in baseball to reach the House That Ruth Built. "I'll be tremendously indebted to George Steinbrenner for the rest of my life."

That's one side of Merrill, 46, an earnest company man who has stuck with the Yankees even when they did not always reward his excellence as a minor league manager. "I'm a big believer in hard work and fate," he said, doggedly.

Merrill, however, also is a tart, whimsical fellow with a master's degree from the University of Maine who could do many saner things with his time than work for George Steinbrenner.

"It's not like I don't know what I'm getting myself into. I've survived in this organization for 14 years. I've seen everything," said Merrill, slyly. "I didn't think George could do anything that would surprise me. But damned if he didn't. . . . I hope to be here a long time, but if I'm not, I'm not. I'm going to have fun while I am here."

Behind the Yankees' dugout at Memorial Stadium Friday night, a fan yelled, "Hey, Merrill, don't bother to buy a house in New York."

Merrill, who caught for six seasons in the minors, gave the sardonic grin of a man who had more knee surgeries (four) than homers. He likes to say of his new club, "I want to find out what we're holdin'." But he already knows what the Yankees are holding: the worst record in baseball and 12 losses in 13 games. In his first game, the Yankees suffered a two-hit shutout; the second night, a one-hit shutout. Friday night here, they played the outfield like untrained seals and an infield error gave the Orioles a 5-4 win in 10 innings.

"Anybody that's managed for George {and been fired} has gone on to improve themselves," said Merrill with a wink. Yes, there's always expansion. It's hard to get into The Managers Club. And pretty hard to get out too.

The friends of Merrill, garnered all over America from Batavia, N.Y., to Eugene, Ore., but mostly centered around Topsham, Maine, form a very long line. For the last three days, they've all been trying to get on the phone at once. "Man, ringing off the hook. Had to disconnect the phone today to get some sleep," said Merrill, who'll never forget one call -- from Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine.

Mostly, the old buddies tell him they don't care if he ever wins a game in the majors. Or if he gets fired by Sunday. They figure he's made it to the end of the rainbow: New York Yankees manager. Not bad for a guy who officiated high school basketball and coached football at Bowdoin to pick up offseason money. Not too shabby for a player who, when he finally hit his first homer (in his fourth season), watched the ball soar over the wall, then slid into home as his roomie dashed from the dugout to call him safe.

Merrill should be the patron saint of every baseball lifer who passed up better opportunities and listened to countless backhanded compliments, like "What are you doing here." Once, thinking of the oddity of it all, Merrill said, "Maybe they'll bury me in a pine box with stirrups."

Naturally, Merrill's appointment as Steinbrenner's 19th manager in 18 seasons has met with nationwide attempts at humor. One New York tabloid ran a headline: "Stump Who?" Some have said that Merrill proves Andy Warhol wrong: Sooner or later, everybody will manage the Yankees for 15 minutes.

To add to the sense that Merrill's tenure may be limited, Steinbrenner has solemnly promised Merrill will finish the year. Joe Isuzu says so too.

Actually the Yankees have just failed to appreciate what they have in their hands, as usual. Here are two pertinent trivia questions. Who has the best career won-lost percentage of all pro managers (minimum 1,000 games) in the last 40 years? Who has the best career managerial winning percentage record in minor league history?

Answer: Stump Merrill.

Probably.

According to the Society for American Baseball Research's most recent tome on the subject (published in 1985), the best career minor league mark was .585 (1234-876) by old-timer Bill Murray. In 10 seasons, Merrill is .591 (750-519). Maybe SABR can do a Stump update.

If Merrill the manager needs testimonials, Don Mattingly, who played for him at Nashville, gladly will give him one: "He's fair, hard-nosed and an intense guy. He doesn't need to be introduced to people in this organization."

In most years of Steinbrenner's reign, when talent was deep but attitude or tactics abysmal, Merrill probably would have flourished. George III has had one other manager who was bright, decent, tough, educated and had a psychologist's touch with young players -- Dick Howser. And Howser didn't have Merrill's experience as a manager.

However, the Yankees now are such a collection of fading pitchers, hot-dogging outfielders and infant infielders that perhaps no one could improve them in a hurry.

One moment Friday evening capsulized the woe that Merrill faces. Mike Witt "felt something pop" in his elbow and was replaced by Greg Cadaret. It's not often that a pitcher with no wins, who was traded for a future Hall-of-Famer (Dave Winfield), is replaced by a pitcher with one win who was traded for a future Hall-of-Famer (Rickey Henderson).

There's little question Merrill deserves to manage in the majors. It's moot whether he deserves to be put in charge of these particular Yankees.