Sherwood Playground is just a little place, a fleck of dusty real estate in the city where men on the Sherwood Sluggers knock a softball around a diamond full of stones. There's nothing pretty about Sherwood: paint flakes off the climbing bars; the maintenance man, Harry Neal, is retired.

Yet, beneath the rocks, the dust and the litter, at an unknown place where the heart of a playground must be, Sherwood is alive. It has withstood the budget cuts, layoffs and trampling feet of passing years. The people who live around it pour faith and labor into the playground, and receive happiness in return.

Sherwood, one of 125 public recreation centers in the city, is more than swing sets and climbing bars, more than a baseball field and a basketball court. Memories are made at the Father's Day picnic, friendships shared over a game of cards. Heat and tempers are doused in a fire hydrant spray, days are filled with lazy conversation when summer's a sticky gauze. Children grow up with baseball gloves, grownups are kids with basketballs.

"It's something you want to be a part of," said Richard Hansberry, who grew up in Northeast Washington, three blocks from Sherwood, was the playground director for seven years and now works for the recreation department as a "roving leader," counseling the city's youths. "When you leave, you miss a wonderful thing."

Sherwood Playground has changed little since earthmovers first carved out its 1.9 acres more than 50 years ago. Once white people lived in the row houses, and the laws of the time, until segregation was lifted in 1954, kept "coloreds" off the grounds. They played, 44-year-old Hansberry recalls, "on vacant lots and in the streets."

Whites moved away, replaced by blacks who mostly live just above the poverty line. Mothers are waitresses, cooks and security guards. Fathers are laborers; many sons are unemployed.

The park lies at the corner of 10th and G streets NE. The Capitol Hill Terrace apartments--a giant brick building for senior citizens--borders the playground on the north; Goding Elementary School on the south. To the east on 10th Street NE stands the old Madison Elementary, now the House of Ruth, a home for battered women. In the middle is Sherwood, where weeds stand knee-deep along the fences, the swing sets are missing swings; water fountains are broken and time, a lazy river, bends in a long, slow curve.

In 1945 the city built a tiny office at Sherwood. It had a covered porch where people could play ping-pong. Ten years later, they made it into an indoor center, about the size of a living room. In 1963, the building got a new tin roof and $7,900 worth of asphalt around the swingsets. For as long as anyone can remember, the swing sets, climbing bars and slide have been the same.

Isaac McKee, operations director for the city recreation department, says Sherwood is "at the top" of the department's priority list for improvement. A $150,000 federal matching grant has been approved, he said, to pay for resurfacing, painting and new equipment. Work is scheduled to begin in the fall.

Walter H. Brooks, who in 1954 became Sherwood's first black director, says the playground "has always been too small and it's always been overused." Nobody knows how many children climb the climbing bars each day, how many sweat-oiled bodies fight for rebounds under the basketball hoop. In a ceaseless procession, they come as children, grow up and return, like Hansberry, as adults.

Roy Stafford, known to everyone at the playground as "Slick," is one of those. When Hansberry was director and basketball coach, Slick called him "dad," the way the 13-year-olds on the Sherwood Lakers call Slick "dad" now. In the '60s, he says, he was a street tough who ran wild. He married and moved to Norfolk, working for the city paving streets until two years ago. Then he moved back to Washington, working as a maintenance man for the city of Hyattsville and returning to the playground as a volunteer.

The recreation department hired Slick, 33, full-time this summer to make sure the playground's children are busy. Lean and streetwise, his gravelly bark and quick, sardonic smile keep the kids in line.

"You don't have no trouble with the law over there," says Louise Ransom, mother of nine children, aged 13 to 34. She lives on Ninth Street across from the playground. "If my kids go over there, I know they're safe. Slick, he looks out for the little ones. They don't stray nowhere."

Many say that Slick, though new on the job, is helping to restore Sherwood to the kind of playground it was under Hansberry, when they say there was always something to do.

"They used to go to Peabody Elementary School for ballet. They had softball games. They had a May Day program," said Doretha Jones, whose seven children, aged 17 to 24, still play at Sherwood. "They had a carnival with horse rides. They had dances every week. They had a sewing program--I went to that myself and made a dress. And then they had an exercise program for the old and the young.

"Oh, it was wonderful. They played basketball against the police department. We played the jail guards and the paint company in College Park. We went to Baltimore to play. We love games," she said. "That's the only time I can holler, besides, at my children and enjoy myself."

Sherwood's day opens at the picnic table behind the "rec" building, where Slick's former playmates, men in their 20s and 30s who are out of work or just taking a day off, pass cigarettes, borrowed dollars and beers.

There's "Big Boss Hog," a man of earthy bluster and unprintable oaths, and Louis and "Cleve" and "Skintight" and "Cutty." They pass time at the picnic table or on the fence rail at the sidewalk, pouring conversation thick and smooth, badgering women, all sassy and full of jive.

"If it weren't for this place, it'd be just like 14th Street," says 25-year-old John Brock. "We'd all be on the streets mugging people like those other kids. As long as Sherwood's open, we come down here and sit and rap. We're helping each other out, keeping each other off the streets."

At 1 o'clock each afternoon, Slick closes 10th Street NE and opens the fire hydrant for the ritual "showers" until 3 p.m. A swarm of children splash in a spout of gushing water they call "The Bulldozer." A free-for-all water war erupts. Slick heaves ammo from a plastic mug, at a grateful target in the 94-degree heat. Two teen-aged girls snare a friend on H Street NE, a block away, and carry her back screaming and kicking for the others to "wet her up." Sherwood director James Murray, in a summer leisure suit, is ambushed walking out the "rec" building door.

Five-year-olds like Shanta Williams, in a miniature yellow bikini and rubber bathing cap, lie supine in the curb, the cool, rushing water spilling over their bodies on its way to the storm drain.

Uphill from the hydrant, teen-agers lie on towels in the sun.

One day the children found a hornet's nest in a tree a few feet from The Bulldozer. Paula Alfred, the playground's assistant director, called the city's Environmental Services department to have the nest removed. Alfred, Slick and the others bent to bureaucracy as, day after day for a week, nobody came to take the nest away. The Bulldozer was quiet. The playground baked.

Alfred, who came to the playground a year ago, says she misses her days at River Terrace Recreation Center across the Anacostia River. There, she says, parents were more involved in activities and the children were more interested in arts and crafts. At Sherwood, she says, the children "curse like sailors and are destructive as hell. All they're interested in is playing ball. They don't want to do anything cultural."

Slick shrugs his shoulders. "Kids are kids," he said. "You have to teach them to be adults. Playing ball is all we've got."

In Slick's youth, before the riots in 1968, there were things to do outside the playground, movies for 35 cents at the Atlas or the Beverly theaters on H Street. Today, the nearest movie house is a mile away and, he says, "You get tired of walking."

"Whatever is happening is happening right here on the playground," says Rodney Dempsey, a 20-year-old unemployed Marine veteran and father. "You can come here and find something to do when there ain't nothin' happening nowhere else."

For many that means playing ball, or watching others play. When he isn't shooting baskets with men his own age, James Reese teaches his 12-year-old son Antwon how to dribble without looking at the ball. There are softball teams for women and men; a hardball team for younger boys. Alfred Smith, who lives at Capitol Hill Terrace, still comes out at 77 to umpire games. Slick coaches a girls' softball team and the Sherwood Lakers basketball squad.

"I don't know what you ate today," he shouts to Antwon Reese after a botched lay-up. "Your head band must be tied around your brain."

"We don't get enough practice," Reese retorts.

Sherwood's pride is the Roving Leaders basketball tournament, a citywide competition Hansberry organizes on Sherwood's undersize court each year. By game time at 6:30, the playground is a neighborhood coliseum. Hundreds swarm around the fences, shouting encouragement to the players, epithets at the referees. Spectators bring lawn chairs and coolers full of beer. Thelma Glover, Sherwood's "Mother of the Year" in 1975, greets the former neighbors who've moved away.

"A lot of people have gotten so sick being lonesome. They just live alone and when they go home and shut the door, they lose all contact with reality," says Ransom, whose children have all played ball at Sherwood, and whose living room, like those of Glover and Jones, is crowded with trophies from Sherwood games. "At my age, going out and watching those games, that's an uplift. I don't ever get lonesome."

"You see," says Slick, "everybody around here is involved in Sherwood. We all love it, and we're all together. It's just one big happy family."