Temperatures approaching the high 90s on a recent Saturday morning meant little to 12-year-old pitcher Todd Levine. The matter at hand was holding the 2-0 lead over the Falls Church All-Stars in a Little League playoff game.

Despite the oppressive humidity and scoring threats by the opposition, Levine remained cool throughout as he held Falls Church to three hits and struck out nine in a 3-0 victory that advanced McLean to a winners bracket game against a Vienna team.

This is Levine's last season with the McLean team. Like many of the players on these all-star teams (made up primarily of 11- and 12-year-olds), they have reached the age limit for Little League play and will move on to junior Babe Ruth competition, with larger fields (60 feet from the rubber to home plate, compared to 46 feet) and quicker players.

Levine looks forward to advancing to Babe Ruth ball, but admits he will miss Little League. What he liked best "was the pitching, because it's fun. There's more competition, with 21 {regular season} games and then the playoffs."

The other factor, he said, is the motivation in getting to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. "{The coaches} mentioned it a lot," Levine added, "because there's always a chance . . ."

That opportunity continues for some next week as victorious local champions advance to the state playoffs that begin Aug. 10. State winners head for regional tournaments a week later and dream of being in Williamsport for the World Series, which opens Saturday, Aug. 24.

If baseball's future lies with the children, then the outlook is bright as far as Little League is concerned. If you don't believe it, just ask Jerry Pierson.

For Pierson, also 12, Little League just meant staying active. A stocky kid for his age, he munched on doughnuts as he described his three-run homer that helped his Vienna American Giants defeat Columbia Pike, 11-4, in an earlier game.

"I like high pitches. It was level {enough} for me to hit," he said of the homer. About Little League, he added, "I just wanted to play. I didn't care where. The best thing is, you can have fun."

Little League baseball often is confused with boys club or intramural programs, where players pay a fee to enter. The only time Little League seems to reacquaint itself with the public is when the World Series is broadcast in August, usually between an American team and a Taiwanese squad.

But authentic Little League baseball is alive and well and thriving in the Washington area. There are as many as 30 programs in the region, with four to eight teams in each league. And the object is not necessarily getting to Williamsport.

"I just enjoy the kids," said Falls Church Manager Charlie Russ. "They learn sportsmanship, to get along with others. As long as they do their best."

Falls Church Coach Paul Oppermann, whose son Eric, 10, also plays in the league, agreed. "The winning aspect of this game is emphasized too much," he said.

In Northern Virginia and Prince George's County, interest in Little League has been steady, with the number of teams fluctuating from year to year. Since the league entered the District of Columbia in 1970, participation has risen to 12 teams, including three new programs this season.

"When it first started out, we only had 14 teams in three (police) districts," said Little League commissioner for the District Dan Hartnett, who added that with the help of the city's Department of Recreation, "now all seven (districts) are involved."

With league levels up to 16 years old, players can go directly from Senior Little League to high school baseball. For some players, it has led to college scholarship offers, Hartnett said. "The interest runs high every year," he said. "Kids call back and thank us (for the opportunity to play)."

In five years of involvement with the Oxon Hill Little League, President Joanna Gauzza has noted parity in interest between her program and boys club baseball. "We have to compete with others, but we're the only ones that offer (only) baseball," she said, as opposed to boys clubs offering various sports. "We're pretty much even. Years back, we probably had more.

"It's a place for the kids to have fun and enjoy the game," she said of Little League's purpose. "They have a place to go, and it gives the kids some values."

In Northern Virginia and Prince George's County, interest in Little League has been steady, with the number of teams fluctuating from year to year. Since the league entered the District of Columbia in 1970, participation has risen with 12 teams, including three new programs this season.

Prince George's County has programs based in Oxon Hill, Brandywine and Aquasco, where the number has remained steady. The only area where Little League has not caught on is Montgomery County, which has no sanctioned teams, but does have several other junior baseball programs.

That interest in Little League has remained stable over the years, despite changing demographics, is a tribute to the parents and organizers, most of whom are volunteers.

For Russ, who coached a car dealership-sponsored team during the regular season, Little League means little time for anything else. It involves practicing for three hours a night, and games on evenings and weekends. "Sometimes, I rush home, put on fresh clothes and it's out the door I go," he said. "It's a good hobby."

Little League, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary nationally, is a nonprofit corporation that patterns itself after the major leagues in its structure, according to Kevin McEvoy, a commissioner in the Falls Church program. He said the land for playing fields is sometimes donated by businesses or local municipalities, and the individual league is responsible for maintenance of the facilities.

The Falls Church Little League fields are well-kept, with lined basepaths and boxes, separate dugouts for each team and a combination concession stand/press box. Like the major leagues, the National Anthem is played and players' names are announced over the public address system before each at-bat.

The District's program is coordinated with the Metropolitan Police Boys Club, which uses public fields for its games. According to Little League District 7 Administrator Lou Zwick, who governs programs in the District and southern Maryland, that has generated interest.

"Like any other {police boys club program}, they have different levels of parent participation," Zwick said, noting there is less interest in the inner city. "But the enthusiasm that has been generated tells us that the future for Little League baseball in D.C. is on the upswing."

The District leagues are divided among the seven police districts, with some areas having two divisions. Some local celebrities, such Lt. Col. Oliver North and syndicated columnist George Will, have had sons play in the league.

Little League survives mostly on contributions of money and manpower from volunteers, as well as from parents and sponsors. There is no required entry fee, but donations are accepted for maintenance, equipment and medical costs. Insurance is provided at low cost by the national Little League office, with liability coverage up to $1 million.

What stands out in Little League is the amount of skill that is often displayed. Because the field is small compared to diamonds used on most other levels {the pitching mound is 40 feet from home plate compared to 60 feet, six inches at other levels}, the players' reactions have to be quick.

Players also have to think, which is what attracted Sarah Mignogna, 12, to the sport. Mignogna, a second baseman who played for the Columbia Pike team, is the first female all-star in the league's history.

"I liked playing the game because it's a thinking game," she said. "There's been no ribbing {from the boys}. It's very positive. It's just another thing to do."

For her father, Gene, it's also another game for him to attend. "Her brother {Sean} plays, so she decided she wanted to play," he said. "She enjoys playing . . . I'm just a spectator."

But, for some of the volunteers, it involves much more than watching. Zwick, who has been a Little League district administrator for 20 years, estimated he averages 19,000 miles a year driving to Little League games in his area and at out-of-state playoff games. He finds the time in addition to his job as a computer systems analyst for the Department of Defense.

He says he wouldn't change a thing, though. "My three loves are my wife, my family and my Little League," said Zwick, a retired Naval Chief Petty Officer. "And not necessarily in that order."