ARLINGTON, TEX. -- The hope, hype and occasional haplessness of Bobby Witt was illustrated by one of his childhood friends, Tommy O'Brien.

The 1986 scene was Oklahoma City, in an exhibition game between the Texas Rangers and the Chicago Cubs. O'Brien attended along with several of Witt's former University of Oklahoma teammates.

Here, O'Brien picks up the play-by-play:

"Bobby strikes out the first nine Cubs he faces," he said by telephone, "and then, on the first pitch of the fourth inning, he throws it 20 feet up the backstop.

"All of us just fall out in the aisle laughing. We are dying. Bobby sees us then, and even he starts laughing."

Witt, told of the conversation, smiled. He did not, he said, strike out the first nine batters. Neither did he laugh, at least outwardly.

Unfortunately, Witt said, the bit about the backstop was true.

"I let one fly," he said, grimacing.

To any friend, teammate, fan or foe who has followed Witt from childhood to the major leagues, his soaring swoops from "overwhelming" one minute to "over everything" the next have been the source of awe, consternation, amusement and embellishment. Only because of Witt's sense of humor and even disposition has he survived the dizzying ride, Rangers say. His likable personality won him the support of teammates, getting him through a demotion to the minors in 1988, trade rumors during the last offseason, a trip to the bullpen this season and, as always, the expectations.

Now, as his season of greatest success draws to a close, he appears to have leveled out. He won't win 20 games. But he won 12 games in a row and is 17-10 with a 3.46 ERA. The Rangers say Witt, at age 26, has become one of the best pitchers in the American League. As Rangers catcher Mike Stanley said, they now have a general clue as to which Bobby Witt will show up every fifth game. Funny, but he was always the same guy in the clubhouse.

"I try to keep an even keel," Witt said, "because, throughout my career, I've been through a lot of adversity. There have been a lot of times where I've been down, as low as I could possibly be. So, every day, I'd say: 'This is it. Let's go out and take something positive from it.'

"It's more or less been a roller-coaster ride. I'm looking for that straight line."

As well as a straight man.

Witt is the club's clown prince. He and former roommate Pete Incaviglia take personal responsibility for the indoctrination of rookies. The pranks either are too silly or too indecent to recount, Witt says. On occasion, however, he has taken his act outside the clubhouse.

He was listening to a popular radio show last year when a caller complained about Incaviglia's defense. The gripe did not go unchallenged.

Masking his Boston accent, Witt called in and identified himself as "Joe from Euless."

"Joe" proceeded to tell the duped host and his audience that he met Incaviglia in an all-you-can-eat barbecue joint. He said he found Incaviglia's personality as great as his appetite, or something to that effect.

"He's a gem," Incaviglia said. "He's always got something going, anything for a laugh. The guys on the team may not like some of his pranks, but he's a very popular guy.

"He's a very open person. If he stinks one day, he'll say it. He's very honest with the team, a great guy to have around."

Witt was fortunate to have such talent as well as a good sense of humor, said an old friend from the Boston suburb of Canton, Mass.

"We knew he wouldn't be the next Einstein," John Homer said.

Witt certainly has not been a thinking man's pitcher.

By some standards, he has been slow to adopt the teaching of innovative pitching coach Tom House. Witt appeared to have learned his lesson in the second half of 1988, when he returned from a demotion to the minors to pitch 12 complete games. But Manager Bobby Valentine says now that Witt was merely "on a roll." House said Witt wasn't really sure what he was doing right in 1988.

One of Witt's biggest problems has been a reluctance to use the inside half of the plate, despite constant instruction. Not until he saw Nolan Ryan's success at challenging hitters last season did Witt respond.

"I didn't emphasize it enough, moving it in, moving it out," he said. "I thought that if I threw it away, the hitters couldn't get out there to reach it. But they can. It also helps me now to set up a guy for later in the game.

"Really, I try to think more like a pitcher now and not just a thrower."

But first he had to go through a 12-13 season last year and a 10-day assignment in the bullpen this spring. Once projected as the club's No. 1 pitcher, he appeared to have lost the role first to Ryan, then to Kevin Brown.

There was speculation the Rangers might be ready to give up on him. Witt's name surfaced in several trade rumors, the most publicized of which had him accompanying Incaviglia to Houston for pitcher Mike Scott.

"That trade was never discussed with the Astros," Rangers General Manager Tom Grieve said. "I'm not saying Bobby is untouchable. But the biggest myth is that the Rangers entertained serious thoughts of trading him. If we ever did, I would expect to get in return what a 17- to 20-game winner would bring. And there's no way anyone would offer that kind of value in return.

"We would never trade Bobby Witt for Mike Scott. And that's no knock against Scott. But that violates everything we believe. You don't trade a 25-year-old pitcher for a 35-year-old pitcher."

If you're Tom House, you don't trade Witt at all.

"I thought he was a Dave Stewart type of guy," House said, referring to Oakland's perennial 20-game winner, a pitcher the Rangers gave up on prematurely. "If he was not going to do anything until he was 30 years old, you still hold onto him. Thank God, they did.

"I am an over-evaluator. I blow a little smoke every once in a while. But Bobby {Valentine} and I always agreed on one thing: He is a major league talent and will be a force in the major leagues."

No one in the Rangers organization had any doubts about Witt's potential when he signed in 1985. After only one season in the minors, his slider and 94 mph fastball won him a spot in the Rangers' starting rotation.

He was, at times, dominating. After four seasons, his ratio of strikeouts per nine innings trailed only Ryan and Lee Smith among active pitchers.

But growing up on the major league level left him exposed to a national audience too. He posted numbers last season that were imposing in their quantity, though not their quality: a 5.14 ERA, second-highest in Rangers history; 111 earned runs, tying him for the league lead; and a league-leading 114 walks.

This impostor was not the same pitcher that Incaviglia once knew.

"He didn't look like the same guy I saw in college," said Incaviglia, who played at Oklahoma State. "I'd see him get beat with a pitch he doesn't really throw. I'd tell him, 'Bobby, throw your fastball.' "

Incaviglia and Witt, roommates for their first three seasons with the Rangers, had frequent conversations about their development. They were a matched set: two strikeout artists, a wild swinger and a wilder pitcher, a pair of hulking talents who often were the object of fan and media sniping.

Although close friends, their response to the criticism differed. Incaviglia occasionally challenged fans as well as the media. Witt, for the most part, turned his frustrations inward.

O'Brien and Homer, who grew up with Witt in Canton, said their friend often felt taxed by the expectations of him. But, good times or bad, he seemed little different in the clubhouse.

Despite his obvious ability, Witt is not cocky. Stanley said a lack of confidence hurt Witt's development. Only lately, Stanley said, has he been encouraged by signs such as one earlier this season, when Witt told teammates in the dugout he needed only one run to win.

The approach was a good one on the field. Bravado, however, usually does not carry well in a clubhouse, which is one of the reasons Witt is so popular with his teammates.

"He was always shy about his ability," said O'Brien, who runs a construction business in Canton. "People would say to him, 'Maybe you'll be in the major leagues someday,' and he'd turn all red."

Homer, who now lives in Boston, attributes Witt's modesty to his upbringing. He recalled, in particular, returning to Canton the winter after the '84 Olympics and visiting Witt's home. Upon arriving, he was told that Bobby had been told to get a job.

He was a mailman.

"It's cold outside, you know?" Homer said, recalling the story. "I'm driving down the street, and there he is, with his arms full of mail and no bag. He's looking all dazed and confused."

A typical conversation ensued.

Homer: "Bobby, what the hell are you doing?"

Witt: "I don't know. What am I supposed to do with all these flyers?"

Homer: "See that garbage can? Put 'em in there. And get a bag."

As usual, Witt needed coaching. He does not necessarily resist it. But he isn't always sure what to do with it.

And a lifetime of mistakes sometimes is hard to correct.

Witt didn't grow wild at 22. O'Brien and Homer, whose sports experiences with Witt span Little League to high school, said he was a terror even as a tyke.

"We'd always take batting practice before games with all the pitchers, but nobody wanted to go in against him," O'Brien said. "He'd hit everybody four times. Nobody knew where it was going. He didn't know where it was going."

Said Homer: "He was 10 times faster than anybody else and 50 times as wild. We were all scared to hit against him. But we shouldn't have been because he walked all of us anyway."

Homer said Witt's legend grew to statewide proportions. People often asked about Witt as Homer visited other parts of the state.

Everyone knew about wild, wild Witt.

"Yeah, back home, I'd walk three guys, then strike out three," Witt said.

He thought a moment, then raised his eyebrows at a joke on himself.

"I do that now."