Thwap! A ball is hit off a waist-high tee with a baseball bat, and a child careens madly toward first base. Her red-faced coach alternately urges the player on and tries to mediate the fist-fight erupting on the bench.

The left-fielder has taken an unscheduled timeout. He's busy eating a little dirt.

And the spectators -- a dozen parents and an older sister or two for good measure -- cheer the teams on to glory.

T-ball, a modified version of baseball for the pre-Little League set, teaches six-and seven-year olds the basics of catching, throwing and, most important, playing together on a team.

"The kids aren't coordinated enough to be able to pitch and get pretty frustrated in a regular baseball game," explains Lee Madkins, who is starting a program at the Columbia Park Recreation Center. "T-ball begins showing them the rules of the game but lets them enjoy themselves."

No one pitches: instead, the player bats a ball nested in a slit piece of urbber hose, which, in turn, sits on an adjustable pepe. "Just think of it," says Peter Kucyk, president of a youth club in New Carrolton. "Hitting a moving ball with a thin piece of wood is probably one of the most difficult things humans can do." In this game, striking out is well-nigh impossible, so all attention can be focused on making it to first.

"Sometimes we had a coach tell us where to aim," remembers Matt Feinstein, a thirdgrader who played on a McLean T-ball team last year. "But I always decided I should try for the guy who looks like he's sleeping."

"The kids have to keep busy, or they won't concentrate," Kucyk remarks. "If you're a coach, it's frustrating to see your second baseman busy chasing a bird. But anyone who takes this all too seriously is an absolute fool."

According to Carl Foley, who has managed McLean baseball teams in the past and now organizes its T-ball program, the coaches in T-ball don't get as involved in exhorting their teams to victory and plotting strategy as in older children's games. "Basically," he adds, "there is no strategy. And it's better this way. The kids can ease into competitive sports at their own speed."

"Last year we came in second in the tournament," boasts Tina FitzGerald, a small second-grader under a big green baseball cap. "The coach of the other team filled a champagne bottle with water, and that was pretty neat. But we got cupcakes."

"Sure they want to win," Kucyk says, "but after every game, we have a few who ask 'Did we win? Did we lose?' And then there are the ones who throw their glove up in the air although the team lost by 15 runs. I think it's great."

A number of area Little Leagues and community centers run T-ball programs. The rules vary, but most require that everyone who shows up plays. The entire lineup bats each inning, whether that entails one "out" or six. And all members of the opposing team field, however many -- usually in a variety of makeshift shortstop positions.

"We usually have a good turnout of parents for these games," Foley says. "The novelty attracts them -- this is their kid playing on a team for the first time. Some of them don't realize how many years of cheerleading they have ahead of them."