NEW YORK (AP) _ For the last nine seasons, the Marlboro Man has taken his position in the outfield at Shea Stadium as a larger-than-life figure on a billboard. Anti- smoking activists want him dropped from the lineup.

Health advocates say the ad gets on television when cameras point that way, enabling Philip Morris USA to skirt a ban on cigarette commercials on TV.

The protest is the latest in a string against tobacco companies' sponsorship of sporting events. U.S. Heath and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan has called such sponsorships ''blood money.''

In an article last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine Dr. Alan Blum said cigarette makers' sponsorship of auto racing gives them ''millions of dollars in low-cost national exposure.''

''The whole idea of tobacco sponsoring sporting events suggests that tobacco use is compatible with physical fitness and athletic performance when we know that the opposite is the case,'' said Dr. Ronald Davis, director of the Office on Smoking and Health for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

An anti-smoking group called Smokefree Educational Services has organized an opening day protest at the stadium next week to get the Marlboro Man benched.

Joseph Cherner, the group's president, said other activists have offered to buy the billboard space - which they estimated costs about $240,000 - when the tobacco company's contract expires at the end of the season.

Karen Daragan, spokeswoman for Philip Morris, said the billboards are aimed at adult smokers and anti-smoking activists were overreacting.

''Any TV coverage is incidental. When the camera pans to the outfield, the rest of us are watching to see whether the outfielder's going to catch the ball or not,'' she said.

Jim Ross, Mets vice president of marketing, would not say how much the company pays for the billboard.

Ross said the team would not decide whether to renew Philip Morris's 10- year contract before July or August, and maybe not until the end of the season.

Before then, pending city and state legislation to ban tobacco advertising from sports facilities could take the decision out of the Mets hands, he said.

''We kind of have to wait.'' Ross said. ''We want to be a good citizen.''

Mark Green, city commissioner of consumer affairs, said 13 major league ballparks have Marlboro billboards, and eight other stadiums have signs for Winston cigarettes, manufactured by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

New York already has taken several steps to further anti-smoking efforts.

Mayor David Dinkins banned most cigarette vending machines, outlawed free cigarette samples and recommended tobacco billboards be removed from Shea and from Yankee Stadium, where the Marlboro contract doesn't expire until 1996.

A City Hall aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said Philip Morris was ''livid'' after the actions.

''Philip Morris directly and indirectly threatened to take the rest of their jobs to Westchester County if we kept up our strong initiative,'' the aide said.

Daragan denied the aide's statements, calling them ''nasty rumors.''