The group at the bar a week or so ago were discussing the status of the softball team that represented them in the local league.

The night before, the star catcher and leading hitter had been acting up and the bartender "86'ed" him. He was home pouting and wouldn't play.

Everyone knew the barroom jargon, that "86" meant the customer was out either forever or for a short spell but each had a different version of the origin of the term.

Errol Flynn was 86'ed at the Brown Derby in Hollywood; Humphrey Bogart at the El Morocco in New York.

Proffessional athletes, judges, congressmen and senators have also been known to be 86'ed.

"What does it mean? Where does the term come from?"

The question was asked of a lot of bartenders and restaurant people. No one had the same answer.

Matt Sheehan, who wears the white apron behind the bar at the Old Ebbitt Grill, thought the term originated at the "21 Club" in New York where there were only 85 tables. "If they wanted to keep some guy out they would say, give him table 86'."

The manager at Duke Zeibert's restaurant, Mel Krupin, had an explanation: "86 means you're all out of something or you out some guy off. It could started when they used to number everything in the big diners.

"They numbered the food orders, and when they hit 86 it meant they were all out of what they nad."

Other versions hold that 86 was a police call signal, a liquor code in New York, or the proof on the side of a bottle of liquor.

A man who researched 86ing a few years back came up with the Chicago Elevated Line.

The el was built in the 20s and people could ride free. A lot of drunks and derelicts rode the line to sleep and keep warm.

When the El reached 86th Street, the end of the line, they all had to get off.

Jack Smeigle, who manages a few restaurants around town, thought it came from an old military term that was used in World War I to help soldiers get out of tr my and might have been called "Form 86."

Sometimes a customer can 86 himself, like the day a State Department type wearing a vested pinstripe suit sat too long at the bar sipping martinis.

He paid his tab, got up to leave and fell flat on his face.

The bartender, Tom Costello, leaned over the bar, looked at the stretched out exec and announced to everyone, "I make the best martini in town."

Costello, now one of the managers of the Old Ebbitt Grill, said, "First, 86' means a lot in the business like when we run out of something we pass the word to the waiters like, 'the special is 86'ed."

He didn't think that 86ing holds up for a long time in Washington, but in New York it is forever. He gave an example.

"There was a guy who played the accordian at the Barleycorn, an Irish bar on 45th Street and Third Avenue in New York and he was 86'ed there.

"He would get a 20-minute break every hour and would have to run four blocks to the Blarney Stone to get a drink.

"I know this, he couldn't get a drink in his own place, and if I wanted to talk with him I would have to run with him."

When the Apple Pie, a bar in Georgetown, was in operation they had a blackboard with a list of the 10 worst drunks in town that had been compiled by all the bartenders around Washington.

One Super Bowl Sunday a guy broke so bad that he immediately made seventh on the list.

When Costello tended bar at Tammany Hall he said there were two ways of taking care of a bad customer.

The men's room was in the back through the door on the left. The door on the right led outside and down a steep flight of stairs into the backyard where they kept a big wooden tub of water for the kitchen grease.

Costello said, "You had to wait for your chance and when he would ask for the men's room, listen for the crash and that usually took care of him for a little while."

Bill O'Brian, a tough 250-pound exmarine from Queens, Noyo, would tell a patron who was acting up, "Look pal, take a walk," and that guy was 86'ed.

O'Brian, now an artist, tended bar in New York and Washington for many years.

"When a guy came into may joint looking like he was carrying a heavy load I would give him double talk and eventually he would agree with the gibberish I was pouring out and leave."

The craziest experience O'Brian ran across in all of his years tending bar was second week on the job.

He was working in a neighborhood bar in Queens full of construction workers on a lunch break. "A middle-age woman came in and asked for a beer. I poured it for her and she left for the ladies room.

"She returned in a few minutes stark naked, sat on the bar stool and began to sip her beer.

"It was tough to ignore," O'Brian said. "The rest of the customers, all men, were pretty good and kept talking and eating.

"I couldn't 86 her and have her walk out of the joint naked, so I was lucky when Mrs. Hensesey, who lived a few doors away, came in for a drink.

"I got Mrs. Henessey to go into the ladies' room to get her clothes, and Mrs. Henessey came back and said there was nothing in there. "Henessey went to her own house and came back with a house dress and made the lady put it on and then I86'ed her."

O'Brian said it was tough to 86 someone. "I'm the forgiving type. A customer gets 86'ed and you take his toy away. They usually come back a few days later and want to be forgiven. So whatever the background of the term, it means just one thing, and usually the patron who hears it has heard the words before during a differentspree."