Old-timers always look back to the good old days, when players were dedicated and astute coaches were regarded with respect and fear.

Baseball, then, was Washington's sport.

A few managers from that era remain in the Washington area -- passing on their knowledge to yet another group of young players. The game is still the same, they say, but the dedication has been lost -- not by the coaches, but by the players. Baseball no longer holds the city's summer fancy.

"Youngsters are no longer enthused about playing. When school is out, they want to go to the beach," said Harry (the Snake) Jacobs, 66, coach of the Rangers in the Clark Griffith League. "There's too many cars and beachcombers . . . guys don't have time anymore. They have all kinds of social problems, like beach partying.

"In the old days, we used to take vacation when the baseball season was over."

"The talent is still there but the mentality is lower," said Melvin Carter, manager of the Indians in the Banneker League and the Washington-Maryland International League. "The interest is still there, but they lack knowledge of the game. I attribute that to the round ball -- basketball. All the money's in basketball."

Jacobs began playing in the southeast Washington branch of the Boys Club in 1937. "The level of play has gone down, but they've got better talent," said Jacobs. "They just don't put the time in it or work on it."

Jacobs, in his seventh year as head coach at O'Connell High School, relates a story one-time New York Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez told him years ago about Babe Ruth being fined after a dugout altercation with Manager Miller Huggins.

"You go over all those things (basics), but if you go out today like (Huggins) did, the players would hate your guts," said Jacobs. "You have to have more patience with them today. Twice (in a recent game), I gave the hitter the hit-and-run sign, and twice he didn't budge to protect the runner.

"Youngsters don't know the game -- 99 percent of umpires don't know baseball," he said. "It used to be that the players wanted it. They listened."

"Dedication is a thing they have a problem spelling," said Herb Rutledge, 65, coach of Wheaton Post 268 of the American Legion. "They had it before TV, credit cards and cars . . . but it's a hard thing for me to realize, you can't tell them to play for God and country . . . you can't tell them to tattoo this on their chests."

Rutledge has coached Wheaton in the American Legion since 1967, the year some of his current players were born. Three times he has led his team to the state tournament -- 1973, 1975 and 1976 -- missing "the brass ring in '75 by two pitches in the bottom of the ninth inning.

"The most precious thing I do is for these kids . . . this program is the best for young men to advance themselves to college. I love kids, and if I can help any boy (better his skills), I'm happy to help."

Rutledge, a 20-year member of the Legion after "defending the country in World War II," is a self-described "conservative redneck." But there is another side of him that few -- mostly just his players -- are privileged to see. Deep down, Rutledge is simply a sentimental lover of baseball who volunteers his time and enthusiasm to the sport.

At season's end last week, when two players returned their uniforms, Rutledge cried openly, remembering their home runs in the final game, hits that had brought tears to his eyes then, too. "I cry easily because I'm so old, but I cried again," said Rutledge, choking back tears.

Wheaton Post 268 had the best hitting team in Montgomery County this season, batting .305 with 28 home runs. Poor pitching, though, kept Wheaton out of the state playoffs. The team finished 12-8.

"I thought we had a chance to make the state tournament," Rutledge said. "I guess I'll just get my guts together, polish my shoes and try to build for next year and into the future."

Melvin Carter, 42, still puts himself in games for spot duty at third base and at pitcher. His love affair with the game started 33 years ago when he played for the Southwest Metropolitan Boys Club. The players he now coaches don't have quite the same heart he did, Carter says.

He has the best career record of any coach in the declining Banneker League, and a care for his players that extends beyond the playing field.

"I'm very proud that I had a part in helping Wayne Ouzts on the way back up," Carter said.

Ouzts, 27, has been playing for the Indians for 10 years, but he was cut by Carter his first season. Carter then decided to give him a second chance, and the outfielder-pitcher, who hit .350 this season, developed into one of the league's most consistent stars.

"I helped him straighten his mind out," said Carter, "and that's rewarding." So, too, is the decade the Indians have dominated the Banneker League. "We're always winning, but I've been lucky to be with the right teams. It's a great satisfaction. Being always on top, that's No. 1."

All three coaches are involved with the game for their own reasons. The common thread that links them is their love for baseball and the debts they feel they owe the coaches that took the time to teach them the game.

"If someone doesn't go out (and coach), these kids don't have a shot. You have a few that want to be there," said Jacobs, who admits he tolerates the players he feels are less dedicated, but remains in coaching for those others who take baseball seriously.

"I'm trying to pay a debt back to the two men who opened the door for me," said Rutledge, whose father took him to Takoma Park at age 8 to learn from Coach Ralph Haries. "My father said, 'This is my son; tell me if he's got anything.' "

Ten years later, Rutledge played for the University of Maryland. "The best way to pay that debt back to my father and to Ralph Haries is to coach these boys. I valued my association with them and I think maybe in 10 years if (a former player) recognized me on the street and said 'Hello, Mr. Rutledge,' that would make it all worthwhile because there's only one game in all the world and that's baseball."