The lady was solid class: golden rings, San Juan tan, draped in crepe. She was Ali McGraw 15 years from now. But as soon as she noticed the man coming toward her, she became Ali McGraw 15 years ago.

She squealed like a teenybopper. She clapped her hands like a convert. She jumped into the man's path like a Hare Krishna type about to beg a quarter at an airport.

She hesitated a little - but she could not resist. Right there, on the corner of 67th Street and Columbus Avenue, she stared at Warner Wolf, swallowed her decorum and said:

"Hey, man! Gimme a break!"

That fervent plea has long been Warner Wolf's trademark.

And now, it is his meal ticket in the biggest of the big time. Being imitated on the street is but the latest and surest sign that Wolf - the former Washington sportscaster so dearly beloved, so endlessly discussed, so sorely missed - has burrowed under the Big Apple's skin.

As sportscaster on WABC-TV's 6 and 11 o'clock news programs for the last 18 months, Wolf "has become an experience every night," according to Ron Tindiglia, the station's news director. Wolf's tenure has also coincided with a near-doubling of WABC's ratings lead.

Weatherman Spencer Christian says he spends half his "time answering people's questions about the guy." Anchorman Ernie Anastos calls him "one of a kind - an original." Never, says Tindiglia, "has anyone like Warner Wolf been on New York television."

As Wolf himself puts it, in his geewhiz-I'm-just-a-country-boy way: "I'm the number one guy on the number one station in the number one market. Can you believe that, man?

"Hey, man, they even got my name on the side of the Fifth Avenue bus!"

Washington, of course, knew him when.

Knew him as a native son - raised on Sheridan Street, graduate of Coolidge High School, life-and-death fan of the Senators and Redskins since the cradle.

Washington watched as Wolf broke into WTOP-TV's starting lineup in 1967 with a crewcut, a thin tie and a nervous grin. Folks grew to like him as he developed his Boo of the Week, his Pro Football Picks, his wavy pompadour and his corner-tavern way of saying "Get him outta here!" with a Maryland accent.

But the loudest noise around Washington was heads being scratched in amazement. For Warner Wolf broke all the rules in the blown-dry world of television.

He was consistently raucous, often boorish, always argumentative. He sometimes made mistakes. He sometimes refused to report certain kinds of scores. He often got too excited. His syntax frequently defied gravity.

But Wolf was a critical passenger as Max Robinson and Gordon Peterson rode to the top of the D.C. news ratings. And try as all four Washington stations have, Wolf has proven impossible to replace in the nearly four years since he left.

The leisure suits Wolf fancied during his salad days at WTOP have given way in New York to Yves St. Laurent blazers and golden cufflinks with W.W. engraved on them. Where Wolf and his family once lived in a simple rambler in Potomac, they now live in a spectacular apartment overlooking Central park. Wolf once favored Coke. Now it's Perrier.

Has Warner Wolf gone hopelessly "uptown?" Rest easy, man. He couldn't.

"Hey, I'm me, man," Wolf rather needlessly explained one recent evening, as he fervidly tried to chew up a slab of sole in the 12 minutes before a Mets baseball game was scheduled to start.

"I'm the same me I used to be as a kid in the bleachers at Griffith Stadium. I gotta be myself, man. Hey, that's it."

Being himself is also the reason Wolf bombed as a network announcer for ABC Sports.

He had left Washington in 1975 after a summer-long contract dispute with WTOP. In his gold ABC Sports blazer, Wolf was assigned to the Montreal Olympics and Monday Night Baseball for the network that was just overtaking CBS as No. 1.Wolf had seemingly arrived at exactly the rigght time.

But Wolf was expected to be a good boy and "stay on the reservation." So when he tore into Muhammad Ali for scheduling a title fight against a stiff, ABC stiffly reminded Wolf - in a midnight phone call - that the fight was going to be broadcast on their/his network.

Then the network wanted Wolf to interview celebrites who "just happened to drop by" the Monday Night Baseball broadcast booth. He refused. Finally, the big boys orderred him to drop the Boo of the Week. "It was like telling me to cut out my heart," Wolf says. "I knew then it'd never work."

The network essentially farmed Wolf out to its New York affiliate to try to get a little air time for the money (believed to be about $120,000 a year) they were paying him. "They may have been hoping I'd quit," says Wolf. Instead, he found the rhythm and the role he thought he had left in the Nation's Capital forever.

"Hey, there are guys cut out of the network and guys that aren't," Wolf, 41, says now. "It was a true experience, but I learned from it-and I got it outta my system, man. I'm back doing what I'm best at, man."

It was during the leanest times at the network that Wolf considered returning to Washington. He had never sold his house in Potomac . . . Washington was turf he knew . . . it made sense.

"Yeah, man," Wolf sa* ys, "there were feelers. A year and a half ago, I was just about ready."

But not now. Why, the other day, drummer Buddy Rich came up to him on a Manhattan street and said hello. Said hello to Warner, mind you - not the other way around. Last month, vocalist Mel Torme did the same thing.

"When they say hello to me in the street, it used to mean they were from Washington," Wolf says. "Not any longer."

As for culture, the Wolfs think New York has Washington beaten hands down. "We went to the Cleveland Symphony the other night," says Warner Wolf. "Never knew there was anything in Cleveland but the Indians and the Browns."

Wolf says he hopes to return to Washington for good some day. "But you never know what's going to happen in this business. You've always got to treat it like it was temporary. That's 'cause , hey, it is.

"But I like this setup here," says Wolf, waving an arm at the brown and green WABC set. "Long as they treat me right, hey, this place would be hard to leave." CAPTION: Picture 1, Former Washington sportscaster Warner Wolf has conquered New York.; Picture 2, Wolf: "I like this setup here." by Donal Holway for the Washington Post