It's time once again to ponder the perils of baseball. Too early, you say? Not for an umpire.

The first signs of the approaching season -- umpire clinics -- have already appeared, with a host of would-be referees girding themselves for the game.

This is no picnic. The world described by a baseball diamond is simmering with rumors of war.

"When you walk on to the field, never say, 'Hi coach, it's good to see you again,'" Jim Beardsley counsels. "The coaches aren't your friends; they're you're enemies . If you have to break it off at your a-- to win, that's sure as s--- what they'll do."

When he's not directing jets at Dulles, Beardsley, 43, runs the Northern Virginia Baseball Umpires Association, whose 100 or so members officiate at every sort of ball game from Clark Griffith to Little League. The last six years, starting mid-winter and ending with the thaw, he has conducted his baseball marathons, with an eye on the spring certification test given by the Virginia High School League.

"You can take your choice," he likes to scowl, throwing his stout frame into a lunge. "You can be a pussy, or you can be an umpire."

It's Sunday night, and there are 12 men -- an accountant, a firefighter and a Navy captain included -- ensconced in a second-floor conference room at the Vienna Community Center, where they're plumbing the depths of Rule 3.00 of the 1980 Official Baseball Rules.

The rule, 32 sections and subsections filling four pages of fine print, is devoted to game preliminaries. You could call it dry stuff. "If the pitcher is replaced," goes Section 5, subsection b, "the substitute pitcher shall pitch to the batter then at bat, or any substitute batter, until such batter is put out or reaches first base, or until the offensive team is put out, unless the substitute pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire-in-chief's judgment, incapacitates him for further play as a pitcher."

But by the end of five hours, with Beardsley and a few assistants at the helm, they will have grappled with issues that cut to the soul: When can you toss out players and fans? How do you stay in control of the game? What do you do to keep from playing the fool? And when should you call the police?

Tom Coll, a paunchy ex-minor league umpire who helps Beardsley with the clinic, tells the group about an incident that combined some of those concerns. When Coll, 30, now a sporting goods salesman in Vienna, worked the Western Carolinas League, there was a player named Pappy Watkins of the Shelby Reds who liked to hurl insults.

"My partner took me aside before a game between the Reds and the Charleston Pilots and said, 'Don't take no s--- from Pappy. The other day I called him out at second and he said, "Nice call, fat man." I had to chase him all the way back to the dugout."

"So during the game, when I called an another player at second, I heard Pappy scream from the bench, 'Shut up, you fat bitch.' I immediately thought of what my partner told me.

"Pappy, you're out of the game,' I said. 'But I wasn't talkin' to you,' he shouted. 'I don't care, get out of here.'

"Pappy pointed into the stands and cried, 'But I was talking to her.' And all of a sudden this 300-pound lady, who'd been giving Pappy s--- the whole game, stood up in the stands and shouted, 'Way to go, ump!'" (But the decision stood: umpires who change their minds court disaster.)

The session at times seems like the plotting of a battle -- a feeling, reinforced on this particular Sunday by the blare of a brass band practicing across the hall ("I hope that f------ tuba player dies," Beardsley curses). But you don't have to stray too far into left field to think of it also as a theological conclave.

"Oh, yeah," says Beardsley,, his eyes lighting up. "It's like passing on the secrets of the Druids."

Indeed, though umpires get paid, from $10 for a Little League game to $35 for a college game, it's more of a calling than a method for making money. When you consider the $350 equipment cost -- for shinguards, chest protector, mask and uniform -- the gasoline used and the abuse endured, it seems that there are easier ways to earn extra cash.

So there must be other attractions.

"If you want to be an umpire for glory or social climbing," Beardsley declares, "close your books right now and get out of the association."

Well, what then?

"I've just always loved baseball," says Al Straub, a 39-year-old Defense Department employee. "I can't play it anymore, and this is only way I can stay in touch with the game.'"