By rights, the game of slow-pitch softball should have no appeal. It is, after all, a fake, a gross imitation of our National Pastime, a game that mocks its players.

The large floating ball sneers that players are too old now hit the smaller, faster hardball. The shorter distance between bases is a concession to the players' dwindling speed and wind. And playing softball is among the very least effective ways to exercise, since the action for most individual players is infrequent, unsustained and not demanding. Plus, beverages generally consumed before, during and after a game may cause a player to actually gain a few calories by the time the contest is over.

So why are recreation departments all over the area reporting a record number of softball teams and players in the season that will run through the summer?

Perhaps the answer to softball's appeal is best found by examining a typical Virginia slow-pitch team.

Its players could easily be your neighbors - three architects, a lawyer, a couple of computer execs, a labor union economist, a student/odd-job specialist, a professor, at least one "temporarily unemployed" accountant and a few players with vague or carefully concealed jobs. They're Bobo, Double Hyphen D, the Bandage, Fleety and other nicknames on the diamond. They range in age from 21 to 36 and most have played together for five years. They played more than 30 games from May through early August last summer. (There are teams in the area that play more than a hundred games each summer, but our heroes don't like to overdo things.)

Most players on the team aren't eloquent about why they play: "Why not?" "It gets me out of the house." "I never really thought about it."

But one says, "Softball proves that there's life after baseball."

Their reasons for playing are evident on game days and in the softball small talk that dominates their conversation year round.

The lawyer-third baseman, tall and dignified off the field, is mostly tall on the field. He wears a terrycloth cap during games, seeks the most advanced scientific methods to keep his glasses from fogging and talked about "retiring" after straining numerous muscles last season.

But when the annual phone came announcing the beginning of practice this season, he said, "I'm ready. I've been jogging, playing raquetball and pumping iron all winter."

In this peak condition, he homered in his second game of this year's preseason tournament, a feat that made the winter of running and pumping well worth while.

The first baseman is a massive former football player nicknamed "Mack-Attack" because of his propensity for downing large quantities of two all-beef patties, etc. at a moment's notice. But the real secret to his batting strength, he tells teammates, is crabs.

"I went with a couple of friends to a place that had all the crabs you can eat last night," he said before a game last season, "and I feel strong today. I always feel strong after I eat a bunch of crabs."

Everyone laughed. But late in the game he cracked a towering homer over the left-field fence.

"That had crab power!" the lawyer yelled.

"I'm tellin' you, it's true," Mack said with a straight face.

It's a tournament time that softball teams face their ultimate challenge. Softball tournaments demand true grit. Invariably scheduled for the hottest August weekend, they are eagerly awaited by every true softball player. They often require playing six to 10 games in a weekend. Summer vacations, work, business trips - everything short of baby births (and maybe even some of them) - take a back seat to tournament play.

Our heroes are bridesmaide at tournament time. Every winter since the nucleus of the team has been together, discussion has centered on being unable to win the big one - the end-of-the-season tourney. The team has battled to division titles, captured 20 or more regular-season victories annually, and proven itself the most consistent winner in its league over the past five years.

Last August, the tournament title was within their grasp. They swept their first four tournament games and went into the title round needing to win only one of two final games - the team they were to play already had one loss; another loss would end its season. Our heroes were confident, especially since their opponents looked tired after having already played twice on that scorching day.

"I've waited for this chance," the architect-left fielder said. "We're in the driver's seat!"

No team have ever lost two in a row in the final round of the tournament. Until our heroes did it.

They stood in numb silence contemplating their destruction. The philosopher-economist-shortstop summed things up glumly: "We're just not tournament tough."

The bearded architect-second baseman sat in front of his fireplace this winter and said he was considering quitting, he was getting too old and too busy for the game. But in the early spring he was out again. "I want another shot at it," he said simply.

In the recent pre-season tourney, the team rolled up 69 runs in its first three games. If was the scourge of the tournament. Until the championship game. They lost, 5-3, to the same team that beat them in last summer's season-ending tournament.

The shortstop says he looks forward to playing them again. "Why not? They've only beaten us by more than two runs once."

In slow-pitch softball, hopes die hard. After all, there's life after baseball. But after softball the bats, gloves, nicknames and other childish pleasures of the diamond are packed away for good.