The last two years have been the hardest of their tempestuous goldfish-bowl lives for those two longtime teammates, Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter.

The two old Oakland A's look at each other in these times of public torment with professional respect and personal understanding - something that neither man has come to expect from the world at large, or even from their New York Yankee teammates.

"Our faces have aged a lot in the last two years," said Jackson. "Cat's getting the gray hair. Me, too. We've both got a lot more wrinkles . . . they call 'em character lines," Jackson laughed ruefully.

"Catfish and I have learned a lot about character in the last two seasons."

Hunter's problems have been physical - a chronic shoulder misery that has threatened to end his career at age 32, and forces him to say, "I'll retire after next season, no matter what."

Jackson's woes have been psychic - a chronic personality clash with his now-deposed manager, Billy Martin, who tried to punch him, called him "a born liar" in public, suspended him and missed no opportunity to humiliate his star player.

No one will ever know whether Hunter's shoulder or Jackson's manager was the bigger pain.

Now, at last, both Reggie and Catfish think they see an exodus from their wealthy, but wearisome, wildernesses.

Hunter is aglow with a nimbus of relief. His shoulder cure is complete for the moment, and also utterly fragile.

"Each time I go to the bullpen to warm up, I wait for the pain to come with me," said Hunter. "But it hasn't come yet.

"I've pitched six times since I came back from the disabled list. One time I couldn't find the plate. One time (a week ago) I has as good stuff as I ever had in my life and pitched a shutout.

"The other times I had no pain, and I had my control," said Hunter, pausing to savor the last word. "That's all I ask."

"You can't have control with pain. You think you can. You tell yourself to ignore it, pitch through it. But when you get right down to it, down to the release point . . . You can't do it. The pain hits you and you flinch."

Hunter paused again: "And you get your brains beat out."

Just six weeks ago, Hunter suggested a cure for his arm trouble after being battered by a Boston home-run barrage in Fenway Park.

"There's pain from the shoulder to the finger tips," said the stoic farm boy quietly. "I think it's time to cut the damn thing . . . off."

Instead of cutting, Hunter underwent a new therapy called shoulder manipulation, designed to tear down restrictive adhesions in the shoulder.

"Ain't too hard to understand," grinned Hunter, tobacco chaw in place. "Before, I couldn't cock my right hand further back than my ear," he said, illustrating. "All you can do is push the ball, not throw it. When you 'short arm' a pitch, you hurt the rest of your arm."

After every game, Hunter plunges his arm in ice for 30 minutes, even though there is no pain."Just a precaution," he said. In New York the manipulation man, Dr. Robert Cowen, comes into the Yankees clubhouse after every Hunter performance - just to observe.

"I've never set a goal in my life," said Hunter. "A goal is just a self-imposed thing that makes you feel like you're falling behind.

"I've always lived one game, one batter, at a time. And that's how I'm pitching now.

"Don Gullett had the same thing done to his shoulder," said Hunter. "He had four starts and that was it . . . back on the DL."

Few comebacks in baseball have had such universal sympathy among other players as Hunter's.

"Catfish has kept his dignity as a man, while his dignity as an athlete was getting kicked in the head," said Jackson, a man of meticulous grammar and fine distinctions, when he is not deliberately lapsing into hyperbolic blues slang.

"This has been a test of everything in him," said Jackson. "People don't just root for him because he's a fantastic talent, but because nobody has ever said a bad thing about him."

Hunter has allowed himself one goal. "I want to finish my career next year with a win the Series," he said. "Then I'm going home to my (110-acre) farm in North Carolina.

"My boy Todd will be 10 then. He's had his early years with his mother. That's the right way. Now it's time for time to get to know his father, the way I got to know mine.

"I don't want him to grow up, get married and start his own family and never know me."

So Hunter vows that farming, hunting, fishing, playing ball with his son are an agenda that could satisfy any sane Carolina man.

"There's always something to do on a farm. When you're finished, you've done something. I got that from my father and uncle; you couldn't get either of 'em to take one day off their whole lives.

"When I was on the DL (in June) I went home and cleared roots, got the field ready for planting with my brother," said Hunter, his hands clenching as if those obstinate roots were there before him.

"Now that land's got beans on it."

For Hunter, the bedrock of his life has always been as simple as trucks, tobacco and beans. The multimillion dollar free agent contract was just security, a way of keeping count of his accomplishments, like Monopoly money in a kid's poker game.

Hunter can't wait for his bumper crop to come in, so, like his father, he can give some of it away.

"Everybody in our neighborhood always had food," said Hunter. "My dad would say, "We can't eat all we've raised in this garden. Take some of it off our hands, 'fore it goes bad.'"

If Hunter has a splendid heartland equanimity - "Golf's the only thing that makes me mad," he said - Jackson lives in a Mean Streets turmoil.

"How's it going, Reggie?" a teammate asked Jackson last month.

"I went to the movies last night and got sued," answered Jackson, blending a genuine wit with truth.

Jackson's infinitely documented tribulations in New York have had one undeniable impact on him: "It's taken a lot of the joy out of me, a lot of the little boy. I really believe it's not gone, that it could come back."

Just two years ago, in Baltimore, Jackson's constant quips, his carefully thought-out epigrams that he dropped with a comedian's sense of timing, had an airy, confident quality.

"A superstar looks good licking an ice cream cone," he would say, "and a great player shines when the lights are out."

No player found self-criticism or praise of others easier. Hitting Nolan Ryan was "like eating soup with a fork."

Now, Jackson measures his words - an act he finds bitterly distasteful.

"Most of the things that have come down on me," he said, "have been because I have always tried to be candid and honest.

"Now," he said, referring to the Martin mess, "I'm not being honest. I'm being quiet."

That difficult silence, for which Jackson makes it clear he would not mind getting some credit, seems slowly to be paying dividends.

Even Baltimore columnists, always among Jackson's harshest critics, have called Reggie "a martyr . . . a guy who's gotten a bum deal in New York."

"Our old Oakland teams were a family," said Hunter. "We all grew up together. We understood and respected each other.

"With Reggie, you gotta let a lot of his talk go in one ear and out the other. Leave him alone and let him produce. Then you can enjoy a great hitter."

Hunter's message, that a Reggie bar with a grain of salt tastes a great deal better, has not been heeded by the Yankees.

"In Oakland, we only had three sportswriters," said Hunter. "Reggie wanted the locker by the door so he could grab 'em when they came in.

"Nobody cared. Nobody resented it. Reggie just likes to talk."