The fans gathered early yesterday evening at the Washington Marriott, hoping to meet the players in town for today's fifth annual National Old Timers Baseball Classic before they disappeared into the ballroom for a night-before-the-game reception.

Chris Caulfield, 14, a center-fielder for the Crofton, Md., Cardinals of the Cal Ripken League, was there to catch a glimpse of the baseball legends, many of whom retired before he was born. "I came down last year and saw just about everyone," said Caulfield, who wants to play for the Baltimore Orioles someday. "I saw Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio -- I got his autograph twice last year."

Cecil Stoutsenberger, a Washington baseball fan since the late '40s, also was there, carrying a baseball covered with signatures and an attache' case full of 8-by-10 photos of the stars in their playing days.

"There's Cookie Rojas -- right there," Stoutsenberger exclaimed, his face lighting up at the sight of an ordinary-looking, middle-aged man with graying hair squiring a woman through the lobby. "It's Cookie Rojas!"

Rojas, like the other 50 or so old-timers in town for the game, was making his way through the crowd of fans so he could get to the reception, where he could greet old buddies and meet -- more fans.

DiMaggio, befitting his special place in the American imagination, was mobbed more than any other player. Guests of Kazmaier Associates, the sporting goods distributor that sponsors the game, pushed their way toward the New York Yankee legend for an autograph, a picture or simply a word with their hero. How does it feel to be besieged yet again, Joe? "This is a fun thing," DiMaggio said, while public relations officers gently pushed away photographers. "Everybody's enjoying themselves."

For the players, old-timer games are reunions, times to talk about the hits, the misses, the pitches and the plaudits of their careers.

*"Sudden Sam" McDowell, the fireballing right-hander who played for the Cleveland Indians, sat at a table with Bill (Moose) Skowron, who played the infield for the Yankees.

McDowell, who may have lost his fastball but not his appetite, balanced five skewers of beef sate' with a plateful of egg rolls stacked higher than a pitcher's mound. "Any old-timer gathering is a reunion," he said. "We see old friends and old enemies. It's also a time to live fantasies because each year after you retire your records get better."

Added Skowron, who wore his trademark flattop haircut, "The pitchers always remember how they got you out but they never remember when you got the base hit to beat 'em."

Among the invited guests were National League President Charles (Chub) Feeney, singer Robert Merrill, announcer Mel Allen and various members of Congress. Even the nonplayers got into the act, talking about their own baseball exploits.

From that noted slugger Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.): "I played American Legion ball. I was all-city at third base."

From scrappy Rep. Dante Fascell (D-Fla.): "In the congressional games I used to play second base."

And when the party wound down and the players started to make their way out, the lobby was still thick with fans. Among the many were Stoutsenberger, looking to get autographs for posters he saved from old Sport magazines, and Caulfield, dreaming about that day 50 years hence when fans will be saying, "There's Chris Caulfield -- right there . . .