The New York publicist is on the phone, breathless.

"I have to warn you," she gushes. "He's an incredible hunk."

His Hunkness, also known as former Baltimore Orioles pitcher and Jockey underwear mannequin Jim Palmer, sits across the restaurant table, sipping iced tea and basking in the bronze glow of his Bain de Soleil tan. His body is long and lithe, his ice-hard chest straining against the snug, white European-cut shirt. There's a dimple in his chin and a smirk on his lips.

Yes, Jim Palmer says, cerulean eyes unblinking, he knows he's a piece of chateaubriand.

"Of course."

But, he says, "I'm not a ladies' man." And later, "My life style is not conducive to that. I mean, where am I going to meet people? On the way to the racquetball club or on the way to the airport?"

Time out. Is Jim Palmer, the man with the golden gams, the man who does for bikini briefs what Lana Turner did for sweaters, the man who carries his very own Magic Marker in case someone wants an autograph, actually saying he has a hard time meeting women?

"I basically do. It could be Baltimore. I don't know." He pauses. "Women are intimidated by me."

He describes himself as vain, narcissistic, self-absorbed. Sportswriters have called him other things: petulant, neurotic, "a pain in the neck," and, in the words of one longtime observer, "the definition of a prima donna." His teammates described him as a hypochondriac, a quitter, immature.

"When you have to grow up as a public person," he says, "it's very difficult."

Orioles manager Earl Weaver, called out of retirement last week, might say he still hasn't grown up.

"There's a man with a lot of problems," Palmer snaps.

Would he return if Weaver asked him?

"Not this year. But I've always said I'd love to play for the Orioles again."

He says only "time will tell" whether Weaver will work out. "Maybe he really does miss baseball. I could certainly understand that."

Besides his ABC broadcasting duties and a recent 10-part PBS series, "The Sporting Life," Palmer -- released by the Orioles last year after several disappointing seasons he blamed on injuries -- has recently lent his name to a glossy locker-room table tome, "Jim Palmer's Way to Fitness."

Why a book?

"They kinda approached me."

But why him?

"I dunno. I think they saw a celebrity that kept themselves in good shape or whatever."

Palmer didn't exactly write the book. He talked to a writer, who took it from there. And he didn't actually come up with the exercise program, either. The credit belongs to a physical therapist Palmer has known for years.

In fact, the only bona-fide Palmer contribution to the Palmer "Way to Fitness" is the souped up, stripped-down Palmer chassis: Palmer playing racquetball, Palmer doing push-ups and pelvic lifts, Palmer reading a newspaper, Palmer in the shower (from the neck up), Palmer in a towel, and, in the most poignant image, Palmer shaving, gazing intently at his own reflection.

Here's a man who never met a mirror he didn't like. The kind of guy who probably checks himself out on the back of every spoon.

"But there's more to you than just your looks," he says, leaning forward. "One of the reasons I wrote the book was because people say, 'Gee, you do underwear things. You look good.' I do care about the way I look, because to me that's a very important thing."

Perfection is what's important. It virtually rules his life. Perfection as a pitcher, as a father, as a spokesman. If Jim Palmer does something, you can bet he does it well, from mowing the lawn to hitting a golf ball. It was this quality that infuriated his former teammates. Palmer, it was said, wouldn't pitch with pain. It was simple. If he couldn't pitch 100 percent, he didn't put the glove on.

He once left a game after 5 1/2 innings because of a hangnail. In the spring of 1983 he nearly missed a start, claiming a stiff neck from sleeping on a foam rubber, rather than feather, pillow in his Oakland hotel room.

But even if the fans booed and the teammates snickered, Palmer was said to have another side. He could be funny and charming, and his genuine love for the game was as undisputed as his awesome memory for statistics. He was generous with his time, and hardly ever refused a charity banquet or appearance.

He was Mr. Clean, the all-American sex symbol. In 1980, after becoming the national spokesman and model for Jockey, he toured the country signing seminaked posters of himself for women who chanted, "Take it off!" Always a dapper dresser, he was presented with the American Image Award by the Men's Fashion Association in 1983.

But it was his fits of pique that will be most remembered.

Already disabled for two months because of pains in the lower and upper back, the shoulder and the bicep, the pitcher went to manager Joe Altobelli in 1983 and said, "Joe, you know what hurts worst?"

Altobelli couldn't guess.

"It's my forehead," Palmer said. "From wearing my cap during the games."

Palmer sips his iced tea and frowns. "That's just because I didn't want to wear it," he says now, defensively. "I said, 'It makes you lose your hair.' "

Extremely health-conscious, Jim Palmer tunes his body like a temperamental sports car.

Your body is a marvelous machine, the most precise, intricate and interesting precision instrument ever created.

Is he a goody-goody?

"No, but I have my scruples."

"Some ballplayers snort coke," Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell once observed. "Palmer won't even drink one."

Water is my favorite, one which I drink during dinner and which I prefer to soft drinks, wine, beer and liquor. I always recommend it as a thirst quencher. I like it best because it tastes good.

He drinks skim milk, rarely eats red meat, prefers his fish broiled and pushes fruit for dessert.

"The Palmer Way to Fitness" also offers a flotilla of fashion hints: "Your sock color should relate to but not necessarily match the color of your tie," and "Your face is what people notice first about you."

Palmer describes his personal grooming habits as "fastidious," reveals that he uses a facial soap for his dry skin, suggests a light moisturizer after an astringent and prefers a "wet shave."

He wears Chaps cologne by Ralph Lauren, brushes his hair vigorously before washing it with an antidandruff shampoo (warm, not hot water). Then he dabs on some V0-5. His hair is cut so he can "give it a fluff and a toss and have it fall into place," and he says hair spray is not for him because it makes his hair too stiff. He thought about getting a perm, but decided not to.

His favorite off-the-rack designers are Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis, his pet peeve is droopy socks, and he mentions that his former wife once gave him a $3,500 Russian raccoon coat, but he doesn't like to "draw attention to myself" with unusual clothing.

Asked by a reporter if he was conscious of his good looks, he once cited Robert Redford's statement: "I never go by a mirror I don't look in."

Is he vain?

"Of course. I would say I'm vain."

Narcissistic? "There are a lot of people who like the way they look. I don't spend hours in front of my mirror."

Divorced, the father of two daughters and on the cusp of 40, he says he would love to be married again. Yes, he says, it would be easier to be married to him now than it was when he was playing ball.

"I look back on my marriage. First of all, I'm a little bit crazy, and I have my idiosyncrasies that are not exactly normal."

Go on.

"I love the smell of Lemon Pledge."

Ask Jim Palmer why he's so preoccupied with perfection and he says, "If you have a fear of failing, you overprepare."

Maybe that insecurity is rooted in the fact that Palmer has no idea who he is.

Born in New York on Oct. 15, 1945, he was adopted at the age of one week by a wealthy Park Avenue dress manufacturer and his wife. His name then was Jim Wiesen. After his father died, 9-year-old Jim and his mother moved to California, where his mother married Max Palmer, a character actor in Hollywood. The family moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., where young Jim Palmer excelled in sports, winning All-State honors in baseball, football and basketball.

"I mean, who knows why I went to the lengths that I did to be good at whatever I did?

"I came from a background where you were expected to be good at whatever you do. If I picked up a golf club, I'd have a fairly natural swing. If I hit a tennis ball, I'd have a fairly natural tennis swing. So therefore, people expected it of me."

Offered a basketball scholarship to UCLA, he skipped college and signed with the Orioles.

Did he want to be famous?

"No. I wanted to throw baseballs."

At 18 he married his high-school sweetheart Susan. They had two daughters, and were recently divorced after a long separation. "My wife didn't like being married to a baseball player. We were already 15 years into our marriage and I had been playing baseball for 15 years, so that caused a lot of problems."

It was tough being married to an image. "My wife didn't want to be married to someone who was misconstrued as being perfect. People were saying, 'Why don't you want to be married to Jim Palmer?' Or the standard line was, 'How did you ever get him?' "

A three-time Cy Young Award winner, Palmer led the Orioles to 268 victories from 1965 through 1984, including a no-hitter in 1969 against the Oakland A's. He boasts 2,212 strikeouts over 3,949 innings. He led the American League in won-lost percentage twice (1969 and 1982), pitched a club record 10 shutouts in 1975.

"I was never supposed to pitch poorly," he says bitterly, "let alone lose a game."

Not yet 21, he was the youngest pitcher to throw a shutout in the World Series when, in 1966, he beat the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched in five other World Series for a 4-2 record.

"I knew I was great," he says.

The only time Palmer ever lost control was a year ago, when he broke down and cried at the press conference called by the Orioles to announce that he was finished. Kaput. While acknowledging that he was the greatest pitcher the team ever had, the Orioles' management had come to the conclusion that Palmer was a luxury they could no longer afford.

"I still think I can pitch," Palmer told reporters, his voice quivering, before he rushed from the podium.

He says now that nobody realized the extent of his physical deterioration. He had a 20-year-old body and a 60-year-old arm.

"I should have gotten fat and out of shape, and they would have said, 'No wonder. He's old.' But I didn't look old. I don't feel old."

It hurt him, he says, to hear people call him a hypochondriac. And his stormy relationship with manager Earl Weaver didn't help.

"It made me angry. Frustrated. The mere fact that you're never supposed to allow yourself to be emotionally exposed as a pitcher. And here you had a manager who never shook your hand whether you won or lost. Earl probably got more out of me than another manager would have, but he made it difficult."

So did Palmer, who would sulk off the field and pout for days when things didn't go his way.

"Turnabout is fair play," he snaps.

During spring training in 1977 he announced that "the Orioles stink," and he once called the team's outfield "our Bermuda Triangle."

"I made a lot of mistakes," he says now. "There's no doubt about it. I used to judge people by my own standards. Which was totally unfair."

There's only one thing Jim Palmer enjoys talking about more than his body: his injuries.

He can give a five-minute monologue on how he hurt his back playing racquetball in 1979, the knots in his elbow, the cortisone shots and chiropractors.

Teammate Steve Stone, seeing Palmer reading "Dr. Zhivago," once quipped, "It must be about an elbow specialist."

Earl Weaver observed, "The Chinese tell time by 'The Year of the Dragon,' 'The Year of the Horse.' I tell time by 'The Year of the Shoulder,' 'The Year of the Elbow,' 'The Year of the Ulnar Nerve.' "

"The point was," Palmer recalls, "in almost every case I did have something wrong with me. But people didn't want me to be hurt.

"If you have a bad year at 38," he says quietly, "your career's over. If you have a bad year at 28, it's a bad year."

Palmer put up as much resistance to the aging process as he could.

"If you're going to play a young man's game, you have to think that way. Now this is something -- I had two torn cartilages, bone spurs, degenerate arthritis . . ."

His voice, by now a monotone, trails off in yet another installment in the ongoing litany of ailments.

"It's just like '83. I got a freak back injury in training . . ."

Yet perhaps Jim Palmer's greatest problem was not his injuries, but his preoccupation with other people's expectations.

"You get a lot of frustration and disappointment if you cannot always do what other people want you to do, whether it's Earl Weaver or not. I was doing a talk show the other day, and a lady called up and she said, 'How come you didn't win 300 games?' I said, 'Well, because I never thought I'd win 268, and for me to do that I would have had to go somewhere else, which wasn't feasible at the time because of my kids.' She said, 'Yeah, but what professional athlete ever gets a stiff neck?' I said, 'A lot of them get stiff necks, but you don't read about them because they're not Jim Palmer.' "

He says he only misses "parts" of the game.

"I don't miss going from city to city and having to be on the road where you don't have anything to do. I miss the camaraderieship," he says, stumbling over the word. "Being part of the team. Broadcasting is rather impersonal."

It's funny. As an ex-jock who is sure to wind up in the baseball Hall of Fame, a man who will certainly know the meaning of Big Bucks, Palmer is still not sure he's made it.

"I'm going to prove," he says pointedly, "that I didn't get the job as an ex-jock for ABC just because I'm an ex-jock."

But Jim Palmer knows one thing: He will never do anything as well as he did that fine day nearly 20 years ago, when he stared down the last batter and threw the final strike in a World Series shutout, beating the great Sandy Koufax in his final game.

"That's why," he says, his voice suddenly low with a cosmic sadness, "nothing will ever be the same as pitching."