Many pitchers drape a wet towel around their neck to cool off between innings or after a game. Not Wilson "The Bear" Whatley. He dons a drenched cloth shortly before taking the field, so the water soaks his jersey.

That way he can rub his shirt to moisten his hand, which in turn gives him a better grip on the ball.

"It's legal," Whatley, 74, assured a spectator yesterday at the International Senior Softball Association World Championships, taking place this week at four area sites and involving 65 teams in six men's age divisions and one women's division.

Whatley's was just one of the tricks of the trade on display at the County Stadium Complex when the 70-and-older and 75-and-older divisions opened the ISSA championships with a series of games to determinate seedings for the double-elimination round that begins today. The other age groups--over-50, over-55, over-60 and over-65--begin play Friday. The tournament ends Sunday. Admission is free to all games.

Most of the top players are in the 50-and-older division, which includes Prince William area teams All Star Sports, the Gents and the Classics. One of the 50-over players on hand will be slow-pitch legend Bruce Meade, who reportedly hit a 510-foot home run in Amarillo, Tex., in 1978. Meade is one of six senior players who will be inducted into the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the County Stadium Complex.

"The 50-and-over teams that will be playing here would be far above any of the local league young teams," said tournament director R.B. Thomas Jr., 58, who started the ISSA event five years ago. "They still have speed. But it really drops off in these five-year increments."

Age does not necessarily dictate talent, however. The fastest player for the 75-and-older, Maryland-based Hotel Tremont team, Russ Counter, turns 80 this fall. Teammate Frankie Murano celebrated his 78th birthday yesterday by driving the game-winning hit deep to left field in a 12-11 victory over the Palm Springs (Calif.) Nationals.

The managers of the teams eye upcoming talent just as youth league coaches would. A so-so 74-year-old could be an impact player next season when he turns 75 and becomes one of the youngest players in his new age bracket. And, just like in youth leagues, Thomas had to verify each player's age to make sure there were no shenanigans. It's rare, but Thomas said in one tournament last year a California 50-and-over team had three players younger than 50 who got caught using fake IDs.

Not every player is a lifelong participant like Whatley, who plays for the 75-and-older Georgia Peaches. He has been pitching softball for 40 years. Ed Cassada, 78, manager and left fielder for the Palm Springs team, gave up softball for 40 years because of family and work commitments. He has made up for lost time: This year, he has played more than 200 games.

"I have no regrets," Cassada said, packing his gear after an 18-2 pruning of the Peaches. "I don't have time for regrets."

One of the teams had to forfeit its first game yesterday, and it wasn't the team from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Maryland or Georgia. It was the Fairfax-based Virginia Cardinals, who didn't have enough players for their first game because many chose to play in their local league tournament.

There was at least one local player competing. Nokesville area resident Dick West, 73, plays on the 70-and-over Hotel Tremont team out of New Jersey, which attracts some of the best players around because it helps pay tournament fees and travel expenses.

"I've been playing since I was 5 years old," West said. "It's a good life."

The seniors use a few different rules. The teams yesterday played with four outfielders, five infielders, a pitcher and a catcher. There are two home plates--one for batting and the other for base running, to avoid collisions at home. There also is a double-wide first base, the outside bag for runners and the inside bag for the fielder.

Most of the game is the same, however, even the preparation. Whatley watches his instructional pitching videotape before most major tournaments to look for any sort of an edge.

"I always pick up something new from that tape, and it's four or five years old," Whatley said. "You look at the man and the way he stands. You pick out his weakness, and you pitch to that weakness. And never throw all strikes. Throw your junk. See if he's going for it. . . . If he's gung-ho and ready to go, you just wait till that bat quits trembling and you drop a pitch in on him."

But it was the hits that were falling yesterday. The Peaches fell, 18-2, in both their games.

"We didn't come to beat these fellas," Whatley said with a chuckle. "We came to play softball."

CAPTION: Casey Bibro makes contact for Maryland-based Hotel Tremont, which won 75-and-older game vs. Palm Springs, Calif. Six age divisions for men are included in championships.

CAPTION: Hobo Gilstrap of 75-and-older Georgia Peaches gets some shut-eye between games of the International Senior Softball Association World Championships.