DURHAM, N.C. -- It's noon and 96 degrees and the imposing presence striding across the outfield of the most famous little ballyard in the country is Washington's last baseball hero. For children in the audience, that's Frank Howard, "Hondo" to those ripe enough to have watched the turn-of-the-'70s Senators -- and who see them yet.

Around and around he walks, outside the baselines, behind home plate, past billboard fences plugging Planters Bank, Wellspring Grocery, Watts School of Nursing, Ruffino's Pizza and then within several yards of the park's signature adornment, the 20-foot wooden scene-stealer in "Bull Durham."

Two miles later, Howard steps down into the first-base dugout and begins to drip-dry. No more than a few minutes into a conversation, he moves from the shade to the top step, once more in the sun's searing embrace. He's been into serious melting for some time.

"My last year of pro ball was '74, in Japan, where I tore up my knee and needed surgery," he says. "After I got hurt, I thought that after 25 years of training I'd live like a human being. I was out of baseball about a year and a half and got up to 328. Looked like a side of beef.

"I started walking, changed my diet. Lost something like 15 pounds a year over about a six-year period. Last year, my percentage of body fat {spread over a 6-foot-7 frame} was under 9 percent. I was at 240," three pounds lighter than in his first full season in the majors, with the Dodgers in 1961.

On the light side of 260 now, Howard twinkles when reminded of his famous line: "How can you wheel that lumber tomorrow if you don't pound that Budweiser tonight?"

"Instead of a keg," he says, "it's only a half keg."

Soon, Howard is leaning further into the sunshine and saying: "I've probably had more fun with the kids in this organization than I've had in a long time." His job title: hitting coordinator for the Atlanta Braves minor league system.

Always frank, Howard acknowledges his is only the second of his 33 seasons in baseball at the minor league level and says: "We run a certain gantlet -- and heaven knows I've run as hard and long as any of 'em. We get signed. We get traded. We get sold. We get released. When we get hired {after the playing phase ends}, there's a pretty good chance we'll get fired. Thank goodness I got rehired." Sometimes a Long Walk

Through seven seasons and 237 home runs, Howard was a daily source of wonder and frustration to Washingtonians -- often on consecutive at-bats. His homers, some seemingly hit with one hand and others to high-altitude seats in RFK Stadium soon painted white in appreciation, were "Natural"-like explosions.

"I also carried that lumber back to the dugout about 1,500 times after getting punched out" in a 16-season career. "Some of those parks it was a long walk and plenty of time to think."

Binges: One stretch in which Howard hit 10 home runs in 20 at-bats; another stretch in which he made seven outs in eight at-bats (six strikeouts and a double-play grounder). A familiar headline: "Howard Homers, Nats Lose."

Dignity: The biggest man in baseball, his weight with the Senators being around 270 pounds, was never outworked. Said former teammate, pitcher Dick Bosman: "He's the greatest man I know. . . . When you looked at Hondo, you said to yourself, 'Take a lesson.' "

Howard hit the Senators' final home run, in the sixth inning of their final home game, Sept. 30, 1971. So emotional was the moment it called for two encores from a man lately inclined not to tip his hat to fickle fans. Howard waved his batting helmet the first time out of the dugout and later tossed his cap into the stands and blew kisses.

"This is utopia," he said.

It also was scripted.

After the game, in which the Senators outscored the Yankees by 7-5 but lost by forfeit when fans overran the field with two out in the ninth, Howard says Mike Kekich grooved one for him.

"A 2-0 count, so I knew it would be a fastball," Howard says nearly 19 years later. "I knew I was going to get a pitch to hit, because the game didn't mean that much. But I still had to lay wood on it."

How Howard got through a career consistently was due in large part to the manager who joined him and the Senators in 1969, Ted Williams.

"He took a guy who had a strike zone from the bill of his cap to his shoe laces and probably a foot inside and outside," Howard says. "Just cuttin' and slashin'. He asked me one day: 'How can a guy hit 44 home runs and only get 54 walks?' Tells me, 'You have no discipline at the plate; always wheelin' and dealin' at that first fastball.'

"I said I'd better wheel and deal with it. I have trouble with that wrinkle. He asked me if I ever took a second strike and I said, 'Hey, I can't feature enough contact to take two strikes.' But I learned to -- and in two years went from 54 walks to 132." His strikeouts also diminished, but only from 141 to 125.

The trade that brought Howard from the Dodgers, along with Phil Ortega, Pete Richert, Dick Nen and Ken McMullen for Claude Osteen, John Kennedy and $100,000, was a career-saver.

"I was at a point where I was wondering if I could play full time," Howard says. "One year in L.A. {1962}, I hit 31 home runs, 25 doubles, 6 triples and drove in 119 runs and still was a platoon player.

"We had Duke Snider, Wally Moon, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis and myself {who managed to get 493 at-bats}. Talk about competition. We won 102 games but didn't make the World Series," losing a three-game playoff to the Giants.

"I really think had I stayed in Los Angeles, under a platoon-type system, I'd have been out of the big leagues at 30 or 31. I really do."

Howard says his Senators teams were just "three players away from winning the whole thing" and adds: "Give us Ron Fairly, Willie Davis and {Sandy} Koufax and we win the damn thing." Howard also knows that's like Wes Unseld saying the Bullets are only Magic Johnson and Robert Parish away from winning the NBA title.

Always at Full Speed

Come on, Howard says. He walks several steps from the dugout and off the field through a gate. Makes a right, goes 50 yards through a dark walkway under the stands and bursts into the clubhouse.

"Hit a couple on the screws last night," Howard says after rushing to a player and shaking his hand. Howard opens a door and points to two dryers and a washer squeezed near where a player was using a whirlpool:

"The Durham Bulls! Crash Davis right over there!"

Howard rarely does anything at half throttle.

"He makes you look like a shrimp," said Brian "Champ" Champion, no toss-back prospect at 6-5 and 220 pounds.

Players expect mortal-sized teachers to be full of chatter and energy. When that comes from someone also physically imposing, the combination can be daunting to players at Durham's Class A level.

"He wears us out," said Kevin Castleberry, three months past his 22nd birthday.

Howard is a few days shy of 54, but pitches extra batting practice to several Bulls who need it. To simulate a major league fastball, he plops a folded towel three feet in front of home plate, then pitches from near the bottom of the mound.

Situation teaching:

"Runner on third base, less than two out -- stay away from the corners."

Howard throws and Champion hits a slow grounder toward second.

"Early in the game, you'll trade an out for a run."

Later, Champion sprays some line drives that cause Howard to begin this dialogue:

"Feel it?"

"Yeah."

"Atta baby. Really feel it?"

"Yeah."

Champion later near the dugout: "The first time I saw him was spring training. Huge. I'd heard the name before, probably from my father. I like to find out a little bit about who's going to coach me, so I checked his credentials. You've got to listen to a player who did the things he did {382 career homers and 1,119 RBI}. He hit the ball hard. That's what I want."

In what he calls the "ivory tower," a small air-conditioned office atop the stands behind home plate, Howard was pleased when the radio fellow doing the play-by-play of the game was able to report: "The Bulls have their hitting shoes on now."

The Bulls assumed command early, Champion even driving in a run off a man-on-third-with-less-than-two-out situation he and Howard had worked on hours earlier. Champion is one of three or four Bulls with a bright future. Another is a lefty first baseman recently turned 19, 6-4 Ryan Klesko.

"I don't get too wrapped up in those little-bitty squirts that spray the ball around," the former Capital Punisher says. "I like guys like this Klesko who bang 'em off the boards out there."

Howard remembers when he was Klesko, and everybody was agog:

"Duke Snider once said to me: 'If they'd let you alone in L.A., you'd have been one of the all-time Dodger sluggers. So many people hit you with so much {garbage} that you just didn't know what it was.'

"It was done with the desire to help me. But it was expected that I'd hit every ball over the light tower. . . . As a kid, I was one of the wilder ones. One of the dumber ones. But I did learn."

What Howard learned in that year-plus out of baseball was what friends long had suspected -- walking away would be impossible.

"The first six months were the greatest six months of my life," he says. "I was in commercial real estate. You know what? The last six months were the worst six months of my life. I thought: 'Oh, man. What do I know? I know a little something about baseball.' "

Howard's return was a step from the majors, as manager of the Brewers' Class AAA team in Spokane. Four years later, most of them spent as the Brewers' first-base coach, Howard ascended to the manager's office. Trouble is, two headlines came too quickly:

Oct. 6, 1980: "Howard Hired by Padres."

Oct. 13, 1981: "Howard Dismissed by Padres."

Howard will not dwell on that. Neither will he linger long on the years that followed and included coaching stints with the Mets, Mariners and Yankees, interim manager of the Mets for 116 games in 1983 and a divorce. Quietly, he has lived in Northern Virginia for the last two-plus years.

A year ago he was let go by the Yankees as first-base coach in the purge of Manager Dallas Green. Howard says Yankees owner George Steinbrenner asked him to manage the Class AAA Columbus team, when Bucky Dent succeeded Green, but "I had to walk with Dallas."

Howard says the only thing that caused him to be livid with the young and developing Padres was indifference. He talks about refusing to become passive himself near the end of a two-year contract that lasted one:

"We're in Atlanta with 10 days left {in the 1981 season}. Day like this. I'd already told the coaches to get their antennas up. Just in case. So we're walking off the field, after maybe a 90-minute workout, dragging and we hadn't even played the game yet. We're tired and had to find a way to get nine innings of winning baseball.

"Brinkman {Eddie, a Padres coach and longtime pal with the Senators} comes up to me and says: 'I always knew you had a couple of screws loose, but I didn't realize how insane you were . . . Daddy, we're not going anywhere but down the Dixie Highway.'

"I told him: 'You know that. These guys know it. And for sure I know it. But we're contracted for 162 games. We've got a day game at San Francisco {to end the season} and we'll work out before that one too. . . . And when it's over, we'll shave and shower and, yeah, there's a pretty good chance we'll pack and go down the Dixie Highway."

The Dixie Highway for Howard now swings among the Braves' AAA and AA teams and the top A club, here in Durham. If his I'm-happy-in-my-work attitude over the last 10 hours has been an act, Howard ought to be in pictures.

"Why be at the ballpark at 12 o'clock?" he says, bringing up the matter. "Because I've been at the ballpark around then all my life. The kids don't get there until 3 or 3:30. So there's time to make notes, take halfway decent care of yourself. I remember Pee Wee Reese saying: 'Hurry in and out of the clubhouse and you're gonna hurry in and out of baseball.' "

Howard leaves the ivory tower for an inning or so, to retrieve some equipment from the clubhouse. He returns soaked, not by humidity but the ambiance of a neat place in sport. He has overheard a conversation, fans remarking that Bulls outfielder Popeye Coles reminds them of Kirby Puckett.

"To me," Howard says, "this park is everything that's good about baseball. Intimate, where players and fans still can communicate."

The Bulls soon have the game safely in hand and Howard reflects: "I don't feel bad about a thing. I could have played better. Probably managed better. It'd be easy to say I didn't have the firepower. But you play with what you have. Unfortunately, I always had young, developing clubs. . . . I can't bitch about anything that's happened to me in baseball. I've had more fun over the course of a lifetime than most ballclubs have had."

One dream remains:

"Is there something selfish in me? Yes. If Washington, D.C., ever got major league baseball again, you think I wouldn't like to come home? I don't care in what capacity, although the role probably would be in the nation's eye."

That leads to the reality of a Senators fantasy camp, involving Howard, Bosman, Brinkman and some other former Nats, having failed to get off the ground a few years ago. Great response by phone; very little payup follow through.

If the enduring memory of Howard for Washingtonians of a particular age is a baseball being launched heroically high and far at RFK, a current one is no less endearing:

It is Howard, fairly deep into middle age, with a sort of deep-fried look about him as he pats a towel loaded with ammonia water about his upper body. He has walked two miles, pitched batting practice and stalked the batting cage for another 45 minutes.

He looks up and says: "It's a young man's game." Seconds later, refreshed, he bounds up the dugout steps, Crash Davis from the Show all but grabbing a young Bull by the horns and saying: "Now what's going on here, son?"

MAJOR LEAGUE RECORDS

Most home runs in one week (Sunday through Saturday): 10, May 12 (2), 14 (2), 15 (1), 16 (2), 17 (1), 18 (2), 1968.

Most strikeouts in a doubleheader: 7, July 9, 1965, (tied with four others).

AL SEASON LEADER

Total bases: 330, 1968; 340, 1969.

Slugging percentage: .552, 1968.

Walks: 132, 1970.

Strikeouts: 155, 1967.

SENATORS RECORDS

Most games: 161, 1969 and 1970.

Most runs: 111, 1969.

Most hits: 175, 1969.

Most homers: 48, 1969.

Most extra-base hits: 75, 1968.

Most RBI: 126, 1970.

Most strikeouts: 155, 1967.