It was the bottom of the fourth inning and nine young men were clustered around the 109-meter mark in straightaway center field at Rome's Acquacetosa baseball field, tearing down the fence.

The nine men were not terrorists, just baseball players from Rimini pawing through the bamboo-like outfield wall looking for a ground-rule double hit by Rome catcher Gene Verdino with the bases loaded.

While two umpires in red barber-shop-striped shirts restrained Rome's general manager from mixing it up with the visiting team, and while the assistant general manager exchanged rigorously civil obscenities with a fan in the stands, the Rimini search-and-destroy squad gave up its 10-minute hunt without finding the ball.

The center-field fence was left in shambles, sagging like a wind-battered leanto. Verdino was awarded a home run. And the umpire roared, "Play ball!" Italian style.

Verdino, a 23-year-old New Yorker who played varsity ball at Georgetown University, got his grand slam, but four RBI didn't reduce the confusion of pursuing the great American pastime in Latin pastures. "It's a real circus sometimes," he said, shaking his head.

Anything can happen in Italy's version of the "game of centimeters," and usually does. Anzio recently enjoyed a six-run inning against Rome by smuggling a fungo bat into the lineup. The official scorer sometimes consults a spectator in the stands before delivering a verdict. And the umpiring is deemed so, well, arbitrary that one player admitted, "You don't take any pitches. At all."

"Where have you gone. Joe DiMaggio?" is the anthem and lament of Italian baseball, which struggles along in relative obscurity behind king soccer and royal-pretender basketball in this country's line of sports succession. The game, in fact, is forced to compete with volleyball and water polo for newspaper space.

It is a young sport by local standards. Baseball officially "landed" in Italy in 1943 along with the Allied armies. The GIs left mitts and balls behind them like sports, and eventually the sport took root across the peninsula.

The game is particularly strong in places like Parma (defending national champion) Rimini (defending European champion), Grosseto and Nettuno, where soccer fortunes are low. Of the 10 teams in the "National League" (the top competition level), only three are based in large cities (Rome, Bologna and Florence) and none generates the labid interest found in the small provincial towns, where the quality of play is generally better - and better appreciated.

Box scores give ample evidence of the league's uneveness. Contests between powerhouses like Parma and Bologna, on a par with good collegiate teams in the States, result in close, low-scoring decisions. But many boxes read like rugby scores. Parma recently mowed down Bollate in a three-game series by scores of 23-10, 10-0 and 16-3.

No matter. The Italians, as usual, handle the limitations with elan. A family atmosphere prevails at most games, and everything is just a little more intaimate.

Rome's home field (one of only two baseball diamonds in Italy's largest city) has only five bleacher sections and crowds that rarely exceed 1,000, but it's paradise to a foghorn fan: the center-fielder can hear insults from every seat in the house.Finances are tight, so team functionaries race youngsters to retrieve foul balls and players share their locker room with a girl's field hockey team. And through it all, one lone vendor wanders up and down the steps hawking those old ballpark favorites: peanuts, popcorn and green olives.

The ballparks are also small, and Rome's field has the added distinction of an indented power alley in left. It's 99 meter (about 300 feet) down the left-field line, 102 in left, 101 in left-center and 109 in straightaway center.

"And this looks like Yankee Stadium compared to Nettuno," said Rome shortstop and newly named manager Jerry Mondalto, 23, of Amesbury, Mass. "A routine popup there goes out."

Mondalto is one of about 90 Americans paid to play - and sometimes manage - in the major and minor leagues here. The Italian Baseball Federation started to import American players of Italian descent in 1971, giving a decidedly American accent to the bilingual infield chatter.

Each team can field there Italo-Americans and one American during a game, and many rosters carry seven Americans. There are so many Yankees, in fact, that umpires are obliged to go through a pregame ritual usually reserved for airports and police stations: a check of passports and identity cards.

Italian players, on the other hand, are strictly amateur. They are electricians, high school students or aspiring doctors who practice three times a week and suit up for the three-game home-and-away weekend series (usually a twinight Saturday double-header and a single day game on Sunday).

Because the United States is the acknowledged mecca of baseball, Italian players keep tabs on their U.S. peers. Everyone knows, for example, that Jim Palmer was the best lauciatore in the American League last year, that Henry Aaron is the reigning all-time floricmpo king and, of course, that Joe DiMaggio holds the record for a battuta valida in 56 straight games. The preponderance of "Catfish frizzes" bubbling out of caps also suggests that photos are studied. The fans, for their part, still regard the arbitro as a bum.

The Italian player also keeps abreast of the latest technical developments in the American game, like "free agents." Mention Reggie Jackson to Riemini slugger Giuseppe (Beppe) Carelli and he dazedly recites the salient statistics: "Millions, millions of dollars."

"I like Reggie Jackson because he's big, fast and powerful," said the 18-year-old first baseman whom American teammates feel is good enough to crack the major leagues back home. "And I also like him as a type of person. He's so . . ." and Carelli rolls his eyes and twirls a finger around his ear. The word has gotten around.

No purely Italian (as opposed to Italo-American) player has sparkled on an American diamond, but the big "if" of baseball lore here concerns Parma catcher Giorgio Castelli.

Everyone love to tell the story of how the Cincinnati Reds were ready to bump a guy named Bench out to first base to make room for Castelli, who showed up at a Florida baseball camp in 1968 as a 17-year-old unknown and had scouts crawling all over him after two days. The Reds, in fact, were ready to sidn him when the long arm of the Italian family scotched the deal. His mother didn't want him so far away from home.

Castelli, now 25 and a straight-A pre-med student, is the offensive bulwark of league-leading Parma and every bit as potent as his reputation suggests. He has hit, more than .400 for the past four seasons in addition to averaging 15 homers a year over a 54-game schedule. During a recent game in June, he socked four roundtrippers.

But Castelli is the exception rather than the rule. Rimini manager Ed Orrizzi said he's seen "no difference" in the play of Italian major leaguers over the past four years. But Rimini pitcher Mike Romano, a 24-year-old New Yorker who is playing his fifth Italian campaign, paid a backhanded compliment to his Italian compatriots.

"They're playing a lot better now," he said. "Before games used to average eight to 10 erros, and no less than five. Now there're usually only two or three."

Part of the problem is inadequate instruction and little experience. Italian athletes are used to thinking with their feet, the legacy of soccer. Thus, only the players who started out early have developed good baseball instincts. Furthermore, Italian high schools and universities do not sponsor sports programs - not even for soccer. Everything is left up to the athlete's initiative.

Rome pitcher Romano Palombi, a 25-year veteran, is typical. Nicknamed "The Lizard" because he lounges in the outfield sun to warm his 40-year-old arm, Palumbi proudly claims to be completely self-taught. The trouble is he skipped a few classes.

"It took me 20 years to figure out you're supposed to break your wrists when batting," he confessed recently. "No one ever told me!"

Although baseball here got its big impetus immediately following World War II, the first recorded game took place in Rome's Villa Borghese park in 1920, when a barnstorming YMCA sports missionary named Balloo plastered the town with posters touting "the most difficult and emotional team sport." During the '30s, an enterprising northerner named Mario Ottino changed his name to "Max Ott" in an effort to drum up more interest.

"But after the war, that's when the action started," explained Massimo Ceccotti, technical director of the Italian Baseball Federation. "Baseball flourished everywhere the Americans were - Sicily, Anzio and especially Nettuno. Now we have too many 'fathers' of the game. Everybody claims to be the father of Italian baseball."

One of the strongest claims comes from a man named Horace McGarrity, founding supervisor of the U.S. Military Cemetery at Nettuno, 30 miles south of Rome on the Tyrrhenian sea. McGarrity and his young local helpers killed time between shifts by playing baseball on the premises, so that, in effect, postwar Italian baseball was born in a graveyard in Nettuno.

Ceccotti couldn't confirm one widely ciculated tale that holds that the first modern games even used headstones for bases, but added, "It would be fair to say that the first Italian people to play baseball were grave diggers."

The sport attained organized respectability in 1950 with the formation of the national federation and has slowly but steadily grown. Each year, American coaches have been brought in to conduct increasingly popular clinics (including spiritual native son Tom Lasorda in 1975). Both the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles now have contacts in Italy, keeping an eye on the home-grown talent.

"Our goal is to get more Italians playing a better and better type of baseball," said Ceccotti, who has devoted the last 10 years to streamlining the league and boosting instruction. "We don't want to create a monument to bureaucracy. We went to create a monument to the game."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is convincing Italians that the game merits interest. Even Ceccotti admitted that baseball is "very much contrary to the Italian mentality."

That mentality was typified by one Roman who recently attended his first baseball game. He wasn't impressed.

"The problem with baseball is that there's no action," he complained. "Nothing happens. As soon as it starts getting exciting, they stop and change sides."