BALTIMORE, OCT. 8 -- Jim Palmer always talked about coming out of the TV booth to pitch somebody to a pennant, but he never did it. Dan Fouts probably knows in his heart he could out-throw half the quarterbacks in the National Football League, but he still is sitting behind the camera on Sundays.

Sugar Ray Leonard gave up the microphone to take his licks in the ring and wound up taking a few more than he expected.

Which makes it all the more interesting that Annapolitan Gary Jobson, silver-haired and prosperous at 40, is giving up his role as TV's sailing guru on the eve of another America's Cup to go back to sea and butt heads with the likes of Dennis Conner.

Jobson was introduced last week as coskipper of Bill Koch's America 3 campaign to defend the Cup off San Diego in May 1992. In fact, Jobson said today after winning the Ambassador's Race to kick off the week-long Cadillac Columbus Cup regatta here that Koch had only one proviso before deciding to sink his millions into a Cup quest:

"He told me around Aug. 1, 'I've decided to go for the America's Cup, but with one condition,' " Jobson said. " 'You have to go with me.' "

Jobson said it was no easy decision. He had helped successfully to defend the Cup in 1977 as Ted Turner's tactician on Courageous, then came up short in defense bids with Turner in 1980 and with the late Tom Blackaller in 1983.

With three campaigns behind him, Jobson toyed with the notion of joining the Heart of America Challenge heading to Australia to try to win the prize back in 1987, but instead accepted an offer from ESPN to become its expert commentator.

ESPN's coverage of that remarkable regatta, when Conner staged the comeback of the '80s in wild winds off West Australia, was a jewel in the cable network's crown, drawing its first national audiences. It launched Jobson into prominence and he has spent three years cashing in with videos, books, globe-girdling personal appearances and more TV sailing coverage, including an Emmy Award-winning performance for NBC at the Seoul Olympics. He was reluctant to give all that up.

"The easier decision was to stick with TV," he said. "It's a nice income, I get to sail anywhere in the world, it's very comfortable.

"But I was sitting in bed at the Goodwill Games thinking and I realized this was a special opportunity. I have one more good campaign left in me; I have a year to get my skill level up; I'll be with people I like and with a well-financed organization, so we won't have to kill ourselves raising money like we did with Blackaller in '83."

Jobson, who had pneumonia for three months last year, said the sickbed gave him a new perspective. "I thought, 'I might not have this opportunity again.' "

So he went for it. Happily, so did ESPN, which gave him an 18-month leave of absence starting Jan. 1.

"I told them my inclination was to go sailing, and they said, 'Man, you've got to go. That's what you do; that's why we have you.' "

The next question is, what is a coskipper and what does he do? No one has ever had one on an America's Cup boat before.

"That's easy," said Jobson. "My job is to run the sailing team -- recruit and train people. We're going to need a lot of them, because we're going to build three boats and start sailing this winter."

America 3 must beat two other U.S. syndicates, Conner's group and the Beach Boys Syndicate, for the right to defend.

Koch announced last week that he has signed on two top helmsmen to help -- 1989 yachtsman of the year Larry Klein and Olympic gold medalist Buddy Melges. Koch himself steers his Matador 2 on the maxiboat circuit and hopes to steer the Cup boat some, as well. Doesn't that add up to too many helmsmen?

"I like to steer too," said Jobson. "But I know I'm best at starting and then handling the tactics. I see myself starting the boat and then calling the turns." The best of the others will steer the rest of the time.J-44s Ready to Go

The Columbus Cup, featuring eight teams from seven nations in a series of match races in J-44 sloops, will run Wednesday through Saturday. Skippers and crews from New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, Sweden, Denmark, Spain and the United States will compete.

The boats will leave the Inner Harbor daily at 9 a.m. for racing at the mouth of the Patapsco. On Saturday, a public spectator boat will be available. Call (301) 547-5023.