I finally began to understand the fuss over the "unlimited arc" when I watched Johnny Lacey pitch a softball game.

Beneath a perfect country sky, at a back road intersection marked by a tavern, on a ball field filled with yells and hooting, from a mound in the center of the dirt diamond, Johnny Lacey gave a little flick of the arm--and the ball rose suddenly into the air.

It climbed lazily, and climbed, up into the early evening, up beyond all reasonable proportion for a pitch, and then hung for an instant, and dropped, descending just as lazily, and just as improbably toward a dusty point that Johnny Lacey somehow knew--even as the ball was launched from his hand--would define a perfect strike.

The Hobos, Lacey's team, easily beat the Hollywood Stars that evening. Though the score was 20-0, a few local softball insiders told me the two teams had equal talent--in hitting, in running, in fielding. The difference, they said, was in the pitching. The Hobos had a man on the mound who could frustrate batters by exploiting the unlimited arc.

The fuss is that some people want to get rid of it, and, as anyone in St. Mary's County can tell you, the demise of the unlimited arc would mean one of two things. Either it would represent the triumph of modernity, ushering in a new era of progress for St. Mary's softball, so that the county could finally fulfill its destiny as the state's (and maybe the universe's) softball capital; or, it would mark the tragic death of an ancient art form that survives here through blessed local custom and the virtuosity of masterful practitioners.

The situation is as follows:

Last night, at the Chicken House Restaurant in Newmarket, the 10 managers of the Rocking Chair League were to decide whether, starting in the 1984 season, their teams must conform to the rules of the nationwide Amateur Softball Association. Those rules confine the arc of a pitch to between 6 and 12 feet.

The Rocking Chair League would be the second of the county's three major men's leagues to domesticate the arc. The Slowpitch League adopted ASA arc rules last year. Devotees of the blooping pitch fear that if a second league abandons it too, then the third--the Young Men's League--will have no choice but to follow. Otherwise, it might lose players to the two other leagues (players hunger for a pitch they can maul.)

None of the softball experts I know can name a well-established league anywhere else that still lets its pitches run free. St. Mary's County, apparently, is a kind of preserve where this rare species thrives. And now the prospect looms that it will vanish from the face of the earth.

To appreciate the gravity of this issue, you must understand something of the role softball plays down here. The three men's leagues, along with a women's league, the somewhat less-organized Premier League, and various church and youth leagues give this rural county well more than 100 teams. More softball per capita than anyplace else, people like to boast.

A St. Mary's team may play as many as 50 or more games a season, including regular games, special tournament games, league playoff matches and the county championship in October. The season, moreover, may be said to begin as early as January, when some officials begin meeting to reminisce and plan. It doesn't really end until mid-November, when the last of the league banquets has been held.

Those who want to banish the unlimited arc argue that the change will improve the game. Softball is a hitter's game to begin with, they say, and the enforcement of a more hittable pitch will heighten that quality, making the game all the more dramatic. Also, they go on, the unlimited arc taxes the abilities of umpires, because the ball's steep angle in effect creates a shallower strike zone. "With that high pitch, you get more complaints, because there's more judgment involved," says Kenny (Mr. Softball) Dement, president of the Slowpitch League and the county's ASA deputy commissioner.

Opponents of the high pitch also maintain that, by preserving this relic, county teams hurt their chances of ever winning a state championship--something everybody seems to think is the county's birthright, given the softball fanaticism here. Even Wayne Edinger, president of the Young Men's League and a staunch defender of the unlimited arc, acknowledges that batters accustomed to the high lob will have trouble in official ASA competition. "If you've been seeing the unlimited arc the whole season, and suddenly that ball comes in there nice and low, the first thing on your mind is going to be to hit it over the fence--then you'll pop it up."

Softball politics enter into the debate, too. The three men's leagues, to some extent, compete for players and "franchises." Frankie Merson, treasurer of the Rocking Chair League, endorses the change in part because he believes the flatter pitch will attract eager young players and perhaps some new teams to the league, which has not grown much in recent years. "Our pitchers are so good at throwing this unlimited arc," Merson complains, "that it discourages the younger ballplayers because they have trouble hitting it."

Johnny Lacey, one of the county's five or six supreme masters of the high-altitude toss, sees things differently. If softball by definition gives the hitter an advantage, he would ask, why further unbalance the contest by "taking the good pitcher right out of the ball game?"

"A flat pitcher doesn't have a chance. He's at the mercy of the batter," says Lacey, a sturdy little bulldog of a man who keeps a chaw in his left cheek. "If they do away with the unlimited arc, they're going to do away with the game."

He means, of course, a certain version of the game--one that many softball players admire for its subtlety and challenge. "A good pitcher will get the ball 30 feet in the air and drop it two inches behind the plate," says Wayne Edinger. "True, most of the time they'll throw it only 14 or 15 feet high. But when they get two strikes on you, they'll go airborne."

Edinger, Lacey and others also argue that the unlimited arc must be saved because it makes the county unique. "This is how we play the game," says Edinger, who vows that even if the Rocking Chair League goes limited, he will fight to keep the Young Men's League free. "We are not changing just because everyone else is playing the other way. We don't play in Pennsylvania or up in D.C. We want our own type of ball."

Maybe the whole question ultimately comes down to how the softball subculture views the likes of Johnny Lacey. Is he a quaint anachronism or a wonder of the world?

I won't take sides here, but I will admit to feeling a certain awe as I watched Lacey, wad in cheek, peer at the plate and then, remaining utterly flatfooted, or with an almost dainty little step, give that abrupt flick of the arm to release the ball--the strangest, most unlikely pitching motion I'd ever seen.

After the game, Lacey told me it was "the simplest thing in the world." All it takes is practice--a few weeks, a few months, a few years perhaps, lobbing the ball at a five-gallon bucket the way Lacey did when he first started out. "Anybody can do it," he told me.

The Hobos' coach, Tub Delahay, came over to amend that assessment just a touch. "He's made an art out of doing what he's doing," Delahay said of his star pitcher. "And he does it the best of anybody around.

"He doesn't want to have that art taken away from him."