In a parking lot beside RFK Stadium this week, two dozen middle-aged men, most of them dressed like Connecticut Avenue lawyers, chased one senior citizen as he left the Cracker Jack Oldtimers Classic.

Pens and autograph pads in hand, the adults pursued the silver-haired 68-year-old man, just as they probably lapped at his heels during his days of legend from 1936 until 1951 when he was the Yankee Clipper and, some claim, the greatest player in baseball history.

"Joe, Joe," cried one fellow, "we played a round of golf together five years ago in Jersey."

The hero stopped to sign. Finally, he was at ease with age and this endless foolishness called fame. At last, it was almost a pleasure to be Joe DiMaggio.

As DiMaggio opened his hotel door late this Monday morning, he tucked in his shirt and buckled his belt. Once, he might have been too formal or too leery to open his door when he was still in disarray. Now, he takes things as they come and wonders why it took him so long to learn the trick. Now, he'll let his hair down, to a degree, and chat for 90 minutes about almost anything.

DiMaggio knows many baseball fans were either children or unborn when he retired nearly a third of a century ago. Since he's spent much of his life avoiding interviews, he's also left a spotty record of his thoughts about the game he loved. Many current fans have never heard him, either.

"It's only in the last few years that I outgrew that (reticence)," said DiMaggio. "It has been a tremendous change for me. I finally conquered that part . . . I find myself a lot more comfortable with people now. It gradually disappeared with the years.

"It sounds strange, but going through those TV commercials (over the last 10 years) for Mr. Coffee and the Bowery Bank in New York has helped a lot. I gradually broke down the barriers."

Perhaps sadly, it took DiMaggio 60 years to learn that even the simplest communication--outside, perhaps, the closeknit settings of family or long friendship--is a form of acting, a hard and conscious and practiced task of projecting some bearable public version of yourself.

"For a long time (until he was almost 60), I would cringe, avoid crowds. It was not for reasons of being aloof . . . I just didn't feel natural. People said, 'You're so relaxed on the ball field.' I'd say, 'But I knew what I was doing . . . '

"Before a camera, or a group of people, I didn't have a performance to give. (So) I was very, very shy. I wanted to be away from people. I thought I didn't have that much to offer, that much to say, so I used to go into my shell."

What did he find that he had to offer.

"My gentleness," he said softly. " . . . I'm one of the easiest (going) guys, and I'm patient with people. Usually I don't mind standing and signing . . . I think I should be flattered . . . the fans have been very good to me. Why not show up? I feel I owe something, as long as they want me.

"(Sometimes) I still balk. I hate banquets with a passion. There are certain people I don't ever feel at ease with . . . I don't do talk shows, though I don't mind sport shows . . . When a lot of people see you and start yelling, 'Hey, Joe,' that's embarrassing. But I'm oblivious to a lot of that now. I try to live a normal life."

Actually, DiMaggio is so infatuated with discovering that the public world need not be a recluse's nightmare that his schedule is now one long leisurely, but persistent, round of appearances, cameo bows at old-timers' games and golf outings.

"I still have to work for a living," he exaggerated. "At least, I'm not really retired in the sense of doing whatever I feel like. Sometimes I wonder if I don't spend my life on airplanes. I took 14 trips to New York last year."

If DiMaggio flies and appears and signs and generally circulates within the baseball world, then that's because he chooses to. Unmarried since he was divorced from his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, in 1954, DiMaggio leads an itinerant bachelor life, keeping a home in San Francisco, but materializing almost anywhere.

The phone rings. "I'm heading to Vancouver tomorrow," DiMaggio tells an old friend. "They've built a new stadium. I'll take a tour around, see what it has to offer."

Because of his large family--he's one of nine children and has a son, 42, by his first marriage, and two granddaughters--DiMaggio has relatives or friends almost anywhere you could stick a pin in the map.

DiMaggio is in no danger of being mistaken for the Electric Horseman. Perhaps it's a question of style, more than anything else. Where another man might seem to be flirting with the limelight so it won't forget him, DiMaggio is so confident of his place that his public appearances have the air of a royal favor. Perhaps a sense of self is as much a gift as a thing earned.

For instance, DiMaggio never reaches, and only deigns to accept a fraction of what is handed to him. When Grecian Formula offered him a quarter of a million dollars to pitch their stuff, DiMaggio declined. "It was a helluva lot of money and I had that beautiful pepper hair then," he said without a trace of anything in his voice. "It isn't that I don't like money, it's just . . . "

He shrugs. He can't explain. DiMaggio doesn't tint his hair and won't imply that he does. Just this week, Polydent put out a feeler to see if he'd hawk their denture cream. "Tell 'em I've still got my own teeth," said DiMaggio to the middleman with a laugh. "Give that one to Martha Raye."

If the bustle of the world rolls off DiMaggio's back more easily than it did in his tormenting decades as one of the country's dominant celebrities, it is, in part, a mere question of volume. The morning he separated from Monroe, photographers were perched in trees, watching the windows of their Beverly Hills house. He couldn't even leave his wife without answering reporters' questions on the way to the car.

Now, his fame is almost old shoe, a comfortable national institution like the way his name recurs as an American touchstone, whether in "The Old Man and The Sea," "Mrs. Robinson," or the latest remake of "Farewell, My Lovely."

A year ago, as DiMaggio was leaving Coopers-town after a visit to the Hall of Fame, he and a friend were deep in conversation and got lost.

"That's the trouble with good b.s.," said DiMaggio. "You miss your turn."

Finally, they hailed a fellow on a tractor to ask directions. The farmer, apparently unaware of DiMaggio's identity, leaned on the passenger door, and speaking across DiMaggio to the driver began saying, "You go down about three miles . . . "

Then, casually, in midsentence, he patted DiMaggio familiarly on the arm and said, "I see you, Joe," then finished his instructions. DiMaggio loves to tell this story. If only America had 200 million more such people of simple dignity, his life would be perfect. Even so, it's getting easier.

DiMaggio's present is easy to take and the past is now at a safe enough distance that redigesting it is all pleasure. He's reached the reminiscing age. Today's athletes say of the honors and records, "It doesn't mean much to me now. But I'll probably enjoy it when I'm old."

DiMaggio is enjoying it.

"You look in those old pictures at the people who attended ball games years ago. They came in straw hat, jacket and tie. Talk about a change. I know those were just the ways of the days. But now, when I see those pictures, I marvel at that. We weren't even aware of it."

DiMaggio knows it's baseball doctrine that pining for the old days gets you the raspberry. But he can't help it. He thinks his game was better.

"We only had 16 teams then. It has to be watered down now. When they keep re-signing fellows like (Gaylord) Perry (age 44) and (Jim) Kaat (45), what does that tell you?

"When I played ball, I played because I loved it," DiMaggio says later. "It gripes me when some of these (current) players find fault with the front office because the owner wants them to give 100 percent efforts and gets mad when they don't . . . .

"I played for the manager and my teammates, not for the owners. Of course, we didn't get no static from upstairs then," he says, in almost the only grammatical remnant of a childhood spent near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

For DiMaggio, the game, at least as he remembers it, was an all-consuming craft--an art into which any man of honor would pour himself completely, defining himself by the pure hard line of his performance.

"I wasn't one of those batting cage men. I went to the outfield every day and worked. I made a ritual of charging ground balls so I could adjust my way of straightening up to throw . . . Dom had ability, but he didn't have room to roam," he says of his brother Dom of the Boston Red Sox. "I did . . . I expressed myself . . .

"People say I was graceful. I was not aware of it. I did everything my normal way . . . I practiced hard. I was a complete player because I worked at it. I remember how good a fungo hitter Earl Combs was. He could put the ball just inches beyond your glove."

DiMaggio wonders if this generation has spent as many hours on baseball's vital details. He remembers working with a rookie named Reggie Jackson. "Reggie didn't mind working," says DiMaggio, "but his eyes must have bothered him even then. We'd come out two hours early. He'd pound that glove and the (fly) ball would land five feet away."

Finally, Jackson could catch what he could reach, but his throws became a small symbol of the age to DiMaggio. "Getting rid of the ball quickly is how you throw somebody out. Reggie takes all that windup and the fans go 'ooooh, aaaah' because he had a strong arm. But he never threw anybody out. I guess it was more important to him to show off his arm."

More to his taste is Steve Garvey, a player who has his full respect. "He's like Malicious (the race horse). He just keeps plodding along."

When it's time for DiMaggio to judge himself, he has a shocking preference. The 56-game hitting streak is not his choice of monument. "Fifty-six is a helluva good record. Everybody's made a big thing of it. But the thing that's most important to me is that we won 10 pennants and nine world titles in my 13 years."

Only one unattained record still pricks DiMaggio to, if not pique, then an annoyed perplexity. New York brought him fame, wealth and an adoring media that gave him such an overlay of the mythical that it will probably remain forever impossible to judge where DiMaggio really belongs among the game's all-time top-10 players. But New York also brought him his cross--Yankee Stadium, a park whose Death Valley seemed constructed specifically to thwart DiMaggio. Call it the House (Babe) Ruth Built and DiMaggio wanted to tear down.

"I don't like to say this about myself, but I would have hit 76 home runs (instead of 46) in 1937 if I'd played in a normal park," he says. "Mel Allen counted all the balls I hit to the warning track. I'll admit it got discouraging. I'd hit the ball 430 where it used to be 457 feet and the guy wouldn't even have to make a sensational catch . . . "

Within the last year, statistican Pete Palmer tabulated every home and away game of DiMaggio's career. Palmer found that in 880 games in Yankeee Stadium, DiMaggio had 148 homers, 720 RBI and a .315 average. In 856 games on the road, he had 213 homers, 817 RBI and a .333 average. So, it's likely that Death Valley cost DiMaggio perhaps 75 homers, 150 RBI and 20 points in average.

In '37, DiMaggio had 27 homers on the road and 19 at home; Yankee Stadium probably cost him 10 homers and an outside chance at breaking Ruth's record.

If DiMaggio's words seem those of a prideful man, it is the last impression he would want to give, and a largely false one, too. DiMaggio has an enormous sense of himself and his deeds, but he seldom seems full of himself. He'll tell tales on himself.

"(Manager Joe) McCarthy wouldn't let me bunt. But, once, I tried anyway. I fouled the ball off so (wildly) that it tipped my nose. I almost decapitated myself. I said, 'That's it for bunting.' "

Before his last season, DiMaggio talked himself into coming back. "That was my first mistake," he says, leaving the exotic impression that it was his first basic mistake in baseball judgment. "I hit .263. I remember that average better than the good ones."

The next spring, in '52, he hung 'em up, though the Yankees told him he could play in any 75 games of his choosing, at no cut in salary. "It didn't take long for me to get over retiring," he says "Within the year, I'd say. I went to one game and watched the St. Louis Browns play in '52. I stood way out in left field on a hill. Nobody saw me . . .My injuries were there. They were just too much . . .

"I knew my body. I understood myself."