The San Diego Padres have always deserved Frank Howard. And now they've got him.

Throughout their dozen-year, second-division history, the Padres have been synonymous with lazy, malingering, no-conscience baseball. They are the only team so infuriating that the club's owner once commandeered the public address system so he could apologize to the crowd for the team's shambling performance.

Throughout his quarter-century in baseball, Howard, the Padres' 44-year old rookie manager, has been identified with hustle, hard labor, and, as he puts it, "gusto and dedication to task." He also happens to be, by a large margin, the strongest human ever to play in the majors. This 6-foot-7, 300-pound Paul Bunyan of nonfiction could have throttled little 251-pound Babe Ruth with one hand.

Among baseball lifers there's no shortage of folk who would love to see Howard strangle a few Padres. The San Diegans have come to symbolize, especially in the last five years, all the worst in baseball's new era of over pay and under play. By contrast, Howard epitomizes the best of what baseball thinks it used to be -- a game where concern for craft and pride in performance were preeminent.

"Frank's going to intimidate a lot of our players," says General Manager Jack McKeon, an old school guy who spent 20 years in the minors. "Anyway, I hope so. I want to be there when somebody challenges his authority."

For that scene, you could sell tickets. Every general manager in baseball would come.

When the pendulum swings too far toward permissiveness, you need someone to swing it back the other way. Say hello to Hondo.

"Somebody's got to care," says Howard, summing up his style. "We're going to be a butt-bustin' ballclub that goes wire to wire 162 games a year. If they're anything other than that, I'll blame myself.

"I'm not here to tell these players what they want to hear. I'm gonna tell 'em what they should hear. I'll listen to everything they've got to say, then we'll do it my way," says Howard, who was racing to back up bases on foul flies into the stands before Pete Rose ever ran out his first walk.

"We've got our work cut out for us, but, good Lord, let's go about our job with some enthusiasm, some professionalism, some sense of creative imagination. Let's know what the hell we're doing out there," adds the former Capital Punisher.

"When you pick up the ball, whistle it. When you swing the bat, swing it like you mean it. Let's go after 'em; let's play some hardball. Jeez, I don't know any other way."

What we have here is a man who, during his one previous managerial season, at (AAA) Spokane in '76 (fourth place), was given the nickname "The 300-pound Greenie."

One of his pitchers there said, "when you walk somebody, at the end of the inning you want to go to the other team's dugout so you don't have to face Frank."

Howard's arrival should send shivers of delight down the spine of all true followers of Padre history.

This is a team of whining, complaining, back stabbing malcontents who respond to defeat with an extra helping of spareribs and a belch.

Some players take the money and run. The Padre motto has always been, 'Take the money and walk.' Some think that the Padres are America's revenge on Ray Kroc for inventing McDonald's. Cast Big Macs on the water, get back Oscar Gamble. Every year, as Kroc has spent $11 million for free agents, it's been predicted that the Padres were about ready to go somewhere. And every year, it turns out to be the beach. San Diego is the perfect place to retire after you've made your fortune. Unfortunately, that idea has occurred to several Padres.

This is the team that once fielded three born-again players at the same time. Unluckily for team unity, Willie Davis believed in Buddha, Mike Ivie in Christ and Tito Fuentes in voodoo spells. The captain of the Padres' all-subversive team was Gaylord Perry, who simply walked out on the team and went home -- with four weeks left in the season.

The only impediment to poetic justice is that a dozen of last year's Padres culprits have already been sent packing. When McKeon arrived and saw how "my veteran malcontents" had picked the bones of gentle rookie Manager Jerry Coleman, he went through the clubhouse like a Zamboni. Five players were gone before season's end, including Aurelio Rodriguez and all-time clubhouse lawyer Guillermo Montanez.Seven more left during the winter, including Rollie Fingers, Gene Tenace and Randy Jones. When Dave Winfield went free agent, nobody cried. Winfield's parting shot after eight years as a Padre was this: "I'm going to the Yankees because, after a while, you smell like what you're planted in."

What Howard inherits is a 73-89 club of which absolutely nothing can be reasonably expected.

Although he predicts 80 to 90 victories, anything Howard accomplishes with the rubble left after this total destruction will be to his credit. "We will have a young, enthusiastic team," says McKeon, "because that's the kind of team Frank and I want."

It certainly seems preverse that Howard, who was perhaps the worst base stealer in baseball history, should manage a team with the most speed and the least power in the game.

Howard, who stole only seven bases in 1,895 games, but hit 382 homers, has a team that stole 239 bases but hit just 67 homers last season.

Both tendencies will be further accentuated in '81.The Padres lost 37 of their 67 homers when Winfield and Tenace left; the whole team will be lucky to hit as many as Howard alone did in a year (48).

On the other foot, all the Padre thieves are back: Gene Richards (61), Ozzie Smith (57) and Jerry Mumphrey (52), making San Diego the only team ever with three 50-steal men. In addition, the prospect for whom the Padres are praying most -- Luis Salazar -- had 11 steals while hitting 337 in just 44 games with San Diego last fall.

"On the bases, we can fly," says Howard. "We've got some good contact hitters, and on defense, with our speed we shouldn't have too much trouble roundin' up the baseball."

But that leaves pitching. Gulp. The Padres have three set starters, which is either good or bad news depending on what you think of John Curtis (10-8, $1.75 million), Steve Mura and Rick Wise (one complete game in 27 starts, 6-8 record, $1.95 million). McKeon has brought in a mob of new arms, at least seven of which have a shot at the staff.

Howard has enormous patience. He'll need it. At Spokane, his young players practically worshiped him for his generosity and compulsive concern about them. Whether big leaguers will take to that philosophy is untested.

"I don't want to be a glorified foreman," says Howard, "though I can be if I have to be. I'd much rather get along with the guys than always be busting their chops.

"I've always gotten along with all types of players," adds Howard, who made popular the expression, "How can you wheel that lumber tomorrow if you

"I don't care what they players do on their own time. They can collect butterflies if they want to," says Howard, who has chomped at the bit for the past four years as a Milwaukee first base coach while he waited for a managerial opening.

"And another thing," says the exuberant Howard. "I don't believe in this 'Give 110 percent' crud. There's nothin' higher than 100 percent. I'll settle for that."

For the Padres, that modest request could prove quite a shock.