The golf links lie so near the mill

That almost every day

The laboring children can look out

And watch the men at play

That wry commentary on child labor was penned by Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn in 1915. Seventy years later, children no longer work in the mills and everybody is supposed to get a chance to play -- men, women and children. The trouble is, apparently, that too many of them want to play softball.

According to a report in this paper last week, Fairfax County, which is experiencing a great business and construction boom, faces so much demand for its softball fields that they're becoming fields of contention. Many of the corporations moving into the county bring with them at least a softball team and, if they are of any size, an entire league. Since they don't generally bring along the fields to play on, conflicts have arisen between the corporate teams and long-established community organizations over who gets the diamonds.

It's not hard to see why softball has caught on so in the 1980s, or why companies would encourage it. It provides sociability (especially now that it's so much a coed sport), good cheer and even exercise, although at times it's about as aerobic as drinking beer. Moreover, for the fading athlete in most American males, it's a chance for a small late-inning miracle: a running catch, a graceful infield play and sidearm throw to first, a chance to impress Tanya of the typing pool with a triple to left. And if the athlete strikes out instead, he can console himself with the thought that nobody is taking the game seriously. Certainly not.

Unfortunately, when the turf for such exploits is scarce, some people go a little too far to secure their patch of it. "I've heard reports of business teams going in and booting the younger kids off the fields," a member of the Fairfax County Athletic Council told The Post's reporter. There was a time when a kid who was chased off a field would threaten to go get his big brother, but with the average American family having only 1.8 children, the big-brother situation isn't what it used to be. Father, meanwhile, is probably off playing softball somewhere, so there's nothing much to do but go home and sulk.

The ball field lies so near the homes

That as the sun does set

The sullen child can see grown men

Pretending they're George Brett.