After 33 years as a United Air Lines pilot working out of National Airport, Ray Kuhlman wondered what he would do with the rest of his life-the best part.

His son and daughter were grown, and his age dictated that he retire. Yet, like so many so-called senior citizens, both Kuhlman and his wife, Ruth, were not waiting to die, they were dying to work.

If the Kuhlmans wanted peace and friendship in their retirement-a slow pace to taste life-they also wanted a challenge, and perhaps even a bit of a dangerous gamble.

What could possibly provide all that?

The Kinston Eagles of the Carolina League.

"I spent a year looking for just the right opportunity to buy a minor league ball club," says Kuhlman, who had been vice president of a Little League and owner of a semi-proteam in Vienna, Va.

"The first day my wife and I saw Kinston, we said, 'This is it.'"

Few harder jobs exist than being owner, president, general manager and ticket-taker for a Class A club.

The task is doubly hard when you return a team to a town where it failed just a few years before-starting the operation from scratch with an unaffiliated team of unwanted independent players.

Last season, Kuhlman brought baseball back to Kinston-and took a $50,000 loss on his life savings.

"I don't think Ruth and I have ever worked so hard on anything," says the genial Kuhlman, "or enjoyed it so much."

The tiny (population 26,000) town of Kinston and the Kuhlmans have had an instant, silver-haired romance.

"You only have to be here for a day to know why we love this town and this team," says Kuhlman.

The road from Kinston's small, but immaculate and modern airport to Grainger Stadium goes through flat tobacco farming country covered with pine and sandy soil.

"Pick Your Own Strawberries," says the sign in an open field where a hundred blond angels and their mothers are stooped over on a Saturday morning, filling their cartons.

Kinston's main street is quiet and prosperous, full of tall, century-old trees and comfortable homes to match.

Outside the motel where visiting teams stay are a series of signs: "Pumpkins, Ice Cold Melons, Molasses and Honey, Fishing Worms, Oysters in the Shell, Indian Corn, New Crop Apples."

This is where baseball had many of its first deep roots, in peaceful Southern small towns near farmlands.

"People here were crying to get baseball back," says Kuhlman. "Montreal had a farm clun here and ran a terrible operation, did everything to kill interest.

"Town officials practically asked me, 'Ray, what do we have to do to get you to come here?' It was pretty much a blank check. The town's built us a new screen, new infield, new lights (to AAA standards) and a new warning track.

"And, you know, there's not one word down in writing. People here still believe in honor and a handshake. We know each other. We don't need a lease to operate. They know I'm no slicker.

"This is farm country and these old tobacco farmers are the salt of the earth . . . they'll tell you the truth to your face.

"My wife and I are on a first-name basis with more people in Kinston after one year here than we were after 33 years in Washington. Folks here know what it's like to be civic-minded and care about each other."

Only recently did Kuhlman discover the exact gut-level difference between his third of a century near Washington and his one year in Kinston.

"I was back visiting friends in Vienna and I was in my car at a traffic light," says Kuhlman. "Suddenly I jumped right straight up in the air like someone had shot a gun. It took me a second to realize what happened: somebody blew a horn at me. I'd practically forgotten what one was."

Perhaps the thing Kuhlman likes best in Kinston is Grainger Stadium, the 30-year-old ball park with the deep-green grandstand that holds 4,720-a lot of seats for the minor leagues.

"It reminds me of a little Griffith Stadium (in Washington) where I watched the Senators for years," says Kuhlman. "The new major league parks . . . I just don't like 'em, I guess. They seem sterile. So much is the closeness, the individual fans getting to know the players.

"I'd rather own the Kinston Eagles than the Yankees. Here, you get to know the kids on the way up and help them, not just pay their salaries and be their boss."

Fortunately for Kuhlman, he no longer has to pay the Eagles' salaries, as he did last season. Last Nov. 10, a red letter day, the Eagles became a Toronto Blue Jay affiliate. For Kuhlman, that link with a major league organization meant the difference between personal financial risk and a good chance at bush-league solvency.

Now, Kuhlman can concentrate on nurturing his project, not just freting over red ink.

On game days, Kuhlman goes with the flow-of fans. He greets his guests-500 to 1,000 a game-at the brick gate, as though they were entering the foyer of his Kinston home. He stands behind the home plate screen ih his shirt sleeves in the early innings, ready to tend to emergencies.

"It's always some little thing," he says. "This morning the padlock on the gate broke. We replaced it. But then the key that the concessions people had wouldn't work."

Do they lock up Yankee Stadium with one padlock?

Once the middle innings arrive, Kuhlman can sit among the fans, listening to the country cheers, "Kill the empire (sic)!!"

"Okay, infield. Let's circle the wagons," booms one fan. "Come on, Rocket. Don't let that man score from third."

"They all love Rocket Wheeler, our little third baseman," says Kuhlman. "He makes Pete Rose look lazy. I caught him out here this morning with a tractor dragging the infield. His parents are visiting from Houston and he didn't want to get any bad hops."

Perhaps Wheeler must do his own groundskeeping, but there is no job that Kuhlman is not asked to attempt.

"I bought this club because I wanted to have something to do rather than the rocking chair bit," says Kuhlman. "But I had no idea how much it would keep me hopping."

A flock of Eagles may one day become Blue Jays-it is likely since the Carolina League has produced scads of stars, from Kinston flash Ron Guidry to Johnny Bench. But it also is doubtful they ever will be tended as gently as they are now.

Sitting next to Kuhlman is Ann Williams, who runs the Green Acres trailer park where most of the Eagles live.

"I'm like an old mother hen," she says. "They can come sit in my office and talk if they want. That's the way of it. I'm not goin' to stand guard over 'em, but you can bet I won't let anything happen to 'em, either.

"That first baseman Boomer Wells is just a great big old Teddy bear. And Rafael Santana with that big, huge smile of his . . . I can spot him a ways off.

"These are all good boys. They keep the house clean, and they don't cook bad, either. Benjie Perez is almost a gourmet cook.

"It gets bad for me when they get cut or traded," she says. "They're like my own . . . that's how they've done me. But I won't charge the next one any rent if the fellow before has paid for the whole season. I just don't tell the boss anything. He doesn't need to get paid twice. Let the boys split it up. They make little enough."

"Isn't she a fine lady?" Kuhlman says later. "That's Kinston people for you . . .

"You know, they say a lot of young people leave here and go away from Kinston, like they do all small towns. But Kinston's different. They always come back. Or so they say."

Kuhlman, in his rumpled suit, puts his foot up on the box seat railing of his own professional ballpark. He runs his hand through his gray hair as he watches his young Eagles. I made up a slogan for this season that I kinda like," he says. "The Kinston Eagles . . . Part of the Good Life.'"