The sandlot veterans have talked it over and they have just about decided that Pickles Smith never really needed that index finger on his left hand anyway . . .

That's good, because Pickles doesn't have it anymore, not since the jack slipped and the trailer fell.

Smith tried to make light of it. "Just call me 'Nine Fingers,'" he told the guys. But they were worried.

Grown men who play sandlot baseball are a dwindling and close-knit fraternity. When one of their brotherhood is threatened with retirement, either from a sore arm, one too many birthdays, marrage to a good cook or a falling trailer, the news goes quickly through the Maryland Industrial Leagu.

When Doffy, Barney, One Muscle and the rest heard that Pickles had cut off one finger, mutilated another and broken a third, they were upset, at least until they got it straight which digit had gotten sheared.

"Oh, the left hand," said one teammate, the 40-year-old shortstop, with relief. "Pickles throws righthanded." "The index finger," mused Alex, the 37-year-old designated hitter who stopped one rung shy of Ebbetts Field on the Dodger ladder. "Well, Willie Mays never put that one on the bat handle anyway."

Finally, they had convinced themselves. "That's the finger Pickles needed least," said Alex.

Smith agreed. "I'll be back in August," he told them, and no one was surprised. "Pickles always had a good attitude," said Barney.

Some would question the sanity of these men who play 50 to 100 sandlot games a year for teams with names like Fairfax Furniture, Black Sox, Stroube's Mobil, Atlantic Masonry or Martz (Insurance) Christians.

That's unnecessary. They question it often themselves. "Sometimes I feel like a prostitute or a junkie with a drug habit," sais Barney Gidders, 32, for two seasons a batting practice pitcher with the Washington Senators, but in recent seasons "the captain of the white boys" on the Black Sox.

"On weekends I'll leave the house at 11 a.m. and get back at 11 p.m. I'll drive maybe 100 miles to play in a 2 p.m. and a 7 p.m. game the same day. When I get back, my wife just laughs, like 'You big dummy, when are you going to grow up?'"

Nevertheless, it is with sadness, not conviction, that Gidders says he will absolutely retire this year. "Sandlot ball is dying. Even the Black Sox are dying, if not in numbers, then certainly in the quality of players. The guys who really care, who were once professionals, who will spend the time to perfect a pick-off play or a sacrifice bunt or a hit and run . . . we're dinosaurs.

"I asked a 10-year-old kid the other day if he played baseball. He said, 'I used to.' God, that made me so sad I almost fell down.

"And my old buddies . . . they play softball now . . . slow pitch softball."

It is with nothing short of a profound sadness that the old-while-still-young sandlotters leave the game.

They know that these are the days when a body gets nostalgic for the game. Summer nights were made for baseball, not watching it, but playing.

When the sun goes down and the lights go on over Cosca Regional Park (or Wheaton, Woodson or Cabin John) and the choke hold of humidity is broken by a night breeze and a rising moon, then even that mean, hissing streak called a fast ball looks good again.

The arms remember that the crack of "good wood" is not really a sound at all, but an exhilarating shock of contact as the ball leaves on a line, splitting the outfielders.

Life offers few pleasures so unalloyed, and few which are given up so quickly and voluntarily by so many. It is not surprising that these dogged few simply refuse to give it up.

"They say a grown man is too old to play baseball, but they never tell you what's supposed to take its place," says Alex Harriday, 37. "There's never a true athlete who has his heart in the game who can just give it up.

"Nothing in this life has given me as many good memories as baseball. I done had so many I can't remember."

Last week Harriday stood under a spreading tree at Cosca, looking like some lost village blacksmith shoehorned into a double-knit baseball uniform, as he watched his Black Sox mates play Fairfax.

As the 240-pounder took his vicious practice swigns with a weighted bat, giving a little grunt with each, he admitted he did not know the score or the inning, though Fairfax and Black Sex at the top of the Industrial League.

"I've been up twice. We've got three runs and haven't left many on base. Must be round about the fifth," said Harriday. "If we're trailing in the late [WORD ILLEGIBLE] then we get serious."

That is all it takes to light the fuse of memory. Despite his years with the old Indianapolis Crowns, hs career in the Brooklyn Dodger chair, Harriday recalls every pitch of a game on this Cosca field when his Sox trailed, 11-0.

Bob Avellini, then a shortstop for Atlantic Masonry, now quarterback for the Chicago Bears, started a bench-clearing rockus. When it subsided the Sox were riled up. "I hit a grand-slam homer, a line drive up in the trees behind the center field fence, and we won, 14-12." Harriday said, laughing, "I can still see that pitcher with his head bowed."

With that memory fresh in mind, and a new-tangled aluminum bat in hand, Harriday waddled to the plate and golfed a low curve from the Fairfax pitcher far over the left field fence.

Normally, running out a home run is not cause for a seizure, but the designated Falstaff returned from his trot in a lather of sweat worthy of a marathon.

Gasping for breath, he locked at the alien metal bat and grumped, "I sound like a one-man Gong Show."

On the Fairfax bech heads were shaking. "Thirty-seven," the Furniture coach Woody Harris repeated Harriday's age. "Time gets away, doesn't it? He still has the fastest wrists around."

Harris knows about time slipping away. Just six years ago he realized that his son, Billy the catcher, had starred in his last game at William and Mary.

So the father simply created a team - Fairfax Furniture - for his team to play on. "Sure, anything wrong with that?" he asked.

If the Washington sandlot game is to keep its flavor and its reputation as one of the East Coast's toughest testing grounds, it is such ex-college players as Harris who iwll be its lifeblood.

Clearly, at 27, he does not feel like an addict. "It's a joy to play against the Black Sox." he says, leaving no doubt that Hal Greer, the aged Sox shortstop, Harriday and Gidders rank high in his Hall of Fame. "I intend to play as long as I want to, just like they have."

Almost every summer night the air is full of their shouts: "Come on, Ox," "lift one outta here, Ronnie, shoot it up in the light, boy." "Hey, somebody let the air outta No. 5 before he throws one into the seats."

And afterward - after the last murderous hop off a stony-hearted infield, after the last curve in the dirt is called a strike by a blind umpire with sore feet, after the bad lights have turned yet another "kid with a blower ball into an unhittable Bob Feller - they gather in the parking lot and talk about how long they have left.

"I'm just a shell of my former shelf," admitted a laughing Greer, once Washington's sandlot superstar and now its patriarch. "No, make that half a shell."

"But I'll play as long as I'm wanted and needed," he says, still litle as a boy at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, and with a face that would pass for late 20s. "I'll announce my age the day I retire. I'll answer to anything from 35 to 50, but the most I'll say now is that I've been looking at this same face a long while."

Old gloves are thrown in the back seat, bats go with the cracked and taped batting helmets in the trunk. The cars scatter in the night, their headlights a disintegrating nova. No one is heading to an all-night party. Tomorrow is a workday.

"This is where we meet. This is what we have in common," said Gidders. "Just baseball."

The night swallows them like age itself. Only the game stays young. "It's inevitable," Gidders said, smiling wanly. "You start out a prospect, but you end up a suspect."