NEW YORK, JULY 31 -- The storm clouds began gathering over Yankee Stadium about two hours before game time tonight, leaving the ball park a gloomy place. The rain that followed shortly thereafter came in a downpour that seemed to guarantee no baseball would be played here on the day after Commissioner Fay Vincent's ruling that George Steinbrenner must relinquish his controlling interest in the New York Yankees because of his dealings with admitted gambler Howard Spira.

"I've never seen it come down like this here," Yankees reliever Dave Righetti said as he watched the water partially flood the runway from the team's dugout to its clubhouse. "It's George's revenge, I guess. He won't let us play today."

But like almost everything Yankees-related this year, things didn't work out as expected. New York played tonight -- normally a disheartening development in itself, since the Yankees entered their game against the Detroit Tigers with a 39-61 record, in last place and 15 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East. They're possibly on their way to their first 100-loss season in 78 years.

But win No. 40 came with a 10-4 drubbing of the Tigers -- New York's fourth straight victory, tying a season high. As second baseman Steve Sax said beforehand: "We're picking up the pieces a little, but we're still kind of a long ways from popping open any champagne bottles."

Although Steinbrenner officially but temporarily remains the club's managing general partner, the Yankees already had the look and feel of a PG (Post George) production today. Players and team officials talked about their soon-to-be-former boss in hushed tones and in the past tense. They began to speculate about a future under Steinbrenner's son, Hank, nominated today by his father to become the Yankees' new chief of day-to-day operations.

But they praised the man who went through 18 managers in a 17-year reign and caused this proud franchise to be dubbed the "Bronx Zoo" because of the constant feuds he generated and his often-ruthless methods.

"Say what you want about the way George Steinbrenner did things," said Manager Stump Merrill, a 14-year organization man who succeeded Bucky Dent the first week in June. "The bottom line was he wanted to win. He needed to win, and he'd do what he believed was necessary to make the Yankees a successful ballclub. . . . I love this organization, and he loved this organization."

Yankees players were more reserved, but they refused to attack Steinbrenner. "I had no problems with the man," said outfielder Jesse Barfield, acquired in a trade with Toronto last year. "Now that he's down and out, everyone expects us to come down on him. . . . {But} he was good to me. No one can say he didn't try to do what he thought was best, right up to the end."

Said Righetti: "It does no good to bury him now. . . . It's counterproductive. We have to move on. Who's to say anything will be any different around here? We're not going to come back and win the pennant just because he won't be around."

One thing is virtually assured, though. Things will be much less tumultuous.

Identified simply as "The Boss" in this city that loved to hate him, Steinbrenner always made certain matters were interesting. His steady stream of managers included a string of encore performances -- led by the late Billy Martin, hired and fired by Steinbrenner five times. Steinbrenner berated secretaries and office workers, blasted star players publicly and sent younger ones to the minor leagues, enraged by bad plays. He waged constant warfare with fans and the reporters who covered the team.

In return, he was vilified on local radio talk shows and jeered here in recent years when his picture was shown on the stadium's giant television screen. A boisterous chant of "No more George! No more George!" accompanied the news of Vincent's decision here Monday night, and Steinbrenner was heckled by passers-by on the street when he emerged from his meeting with the commissioner.

He promised on taking over the club in 1973 he would "leave baseball decisions to the baseball people," but he made trades and roster moves without the knowledge, much less consent, of his managers and general managers.

His impatience with youngsters and forays into the free agent market made for feast or famine: World Series championships in 1977 and '78, but not so much as a division crown since 1981. This year's Yankees used 81 different batting orders in their first 100 games (none more than five times), and tonight's roster included five rookies -- among them 27-year-old starting pitcher Mark Leiter, making his third major league appearance after compiling a 31-37 record and 4.39 ERA during a four-year minor league career and spending three years out of baseball with shoulder problems.

Don Mattingly is on the disabled list, nursing a bad back. In one of his last significant personnel decisions, Steinbrenner let Deion Sanders return to the NFL's Atlanta Falcons Monday. Barfield and others reportedly want to be traded.

The prospects for quick improvement under Hank Steinbrenner aren't necessarily bright, since his two stints in the club's front office brought more friction and ill-fated personnel recommendations than prosperity. But many observers believe the situation simply can't get worse when George Steinbrenner returns to his equally troubled shipbuilding business.

Few braved the weather to attend tonight's game, although the attendance was announced as 21,682. (Steinbrenner was not among them, a team spokesman said.) There were no anti-Steinbrenner chants. The night's only crowd outburst came when Jack Nicholson was spotted in the stands. In fact, were it not for this morning's blaring tabloid headlines and day-long Steinbrenner bashing on all-sports radio station WFAN, it might have seemed as if the beginning of the end came almost without notice.

"The Yankees belong on top -- or at least near the top, below us," Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson said from the visitor's clubhouse tonight. "This is not how things are supposed to be here -- a last-place team, an empty stadium, no enthusiasm. This is supposed to be a baseball shrine."