It is the top of the seventh inning. Score tied, 4-4. The pesky leadoff hitter for the visiting team stands crouched at the plate.

The pitcher lifts the ball toward the catcher. The hitter takes two steps forward, leaving the batter's box, and hits the ball on a line over the shortstop's head for a single.

The crowd is on its feet, furious. "He wasn't even near the box, ump," yells a man in the third row, scarcely 25 feet from the plate.

The frustrated catcher turns to the umpire and the crowd and spreads his arms helplessly. "What should I do?" he asks. "Hold onto his leg on every pitch?"

Welcome to Rip's Memorial Field in Bowie, home of the Baltimore Monuments of the American Professional Slo-Pitch Softball League. The team and the league are in their first season. The goals of the fledgling pro circuit are modest by major league standards, but enthusiasm, runs high.

The Monuments are owned by Jim Ports, 41, who runs several sporting good stores in the Baltimore area. For Ports, the team and the league are a dream come true.

"As soon as I heard about the league, I wanted to be a part of it," Ports said recently as the Momuments prepared for a doubleheader with the Cleveland Jaybirds. "My biggest problem was finding a stadium. The league said you had to have a 300-foot fence and capacity of at least 5,000."

Enter Dave Wayson, operator of Rip's Motel and other small sundry businesses in Bowie. Wayson had a plot of unused land adjacent to the motel. Five months later, Ports had a 5,200 seat stadium, a 300-foot fence, a scoreboard and press box.

The next step was getting players. Finding men who play softball is not difficult. More than 26 million people take part in the sport nationwide. But Ports wanted a winner. He didn't pull any George Steinbrenner-type deals, but he did some traveling.

With his manager, Ray Duncan, a Washingtonian who has been involved with softball for more than 20 years, Ports set out recruiting.

From Virginia Beach, for instance, he brought in slick-fielding Johnny Dollar; from Culpeper came Lawrence (Boom-Boom) Hutcherson; from Havre De Grace came mammoth John Copenhaver.

There are 56 games on the league schedule and six teams will make the playoffs in September. The games are played on weekends, usually as Saturday and Sunday night doubleheaders.

Most of the Monuments are good all-round athletes who are in sufficient shape for a game like softball but not for sports like football or basketball.

Copenhaver, the team's leading hitter with a 635 average in 31 games, is 6-foot-4 and listed at 266 pounds. He might weight more.

Like most of his teammates, Copenhaver is convinced the league will be a success. He quit his job at H&S distributors to join the team and now works for Ports during the week.

"I think softball is a coming game," Copenhaver said. "It's a hitters' game and that makes it exciting. There's always something happening. It isn't just a game for the pitcher and the catcher.

"This league is just great. The traveling is super and the competition is good. Baseball and softball are completely different games. They're not even close. I'll take softball."

Copenhaver, who is 23 and one of the youngest players on the team, bubbles at the suggestion the league might become full-time. His enthusiasm is shared by most of his teammates and by Ports.

"I don't see why it can't happen," Copenhaver said. "We've been drawing pretty good so far and this is only our first year. Nobody's ever going to make $100,000 at this but then nobody's ever going to pay $5 or $6 to see a game, either. They won't need to."

The Monuments charge $3 for adults, $1.50 for children 12 to 16 and nothing for children under 12.

The team has been drawing between 1,500 and 2,000 people per night at Rip's, a picturesque little field with trees beyond the fences and a dirt infield.

The atmosphere on game night is almost cozy. Fans wander around the field before the 7:30 p.m. start, seeking autographs or just shooting the breeze.

The players have their own little fan clubs and when they come to bat each group loudly lets it be known that their hero is about to deposit a ball over the 10-foot wire fence.

Copenhaver, Dollar, Hutcherson and Byron Ziegler are the stars. Dollar, 34, teaches high school history in Virginia Beach and commutes on the weekend. He starred in both football and baseball at Atlantic Christian College before becoming involved in softball.

"This league really makes the weekend something to look forward to," he said. "I enjoy the game now as much if not more than ever. It's a great way for me to relax."

But relaxation is not the only goal of the players. Although present salaries are modest, ranging from expenses up to about $3,000 for the season many look upon softball as their future vocation.

"I would just love to see this go full-time," said Hutcherson, whose nickname is the result of his 33 home runs, the towering nature of almost every ball he hits and the frightening shadow he casts over the plate as he waves his bat at the pitcher. "That way I could devote more time to the game than just weekends.

"The game is a lot of fun although playing professionally makes it more serious than before," he added. "There's a lot at stake out there now. It isn't just a game anymore; there's a heckuva lot more pressure. If you don't do the job, there's somebody behind you waiting to do it for you"

A case in point is Ziegler, known as "The Lord," is deference to his first name. Known as one of the best slowpitch pitchers in the world, Ziegler is a show in himself on the mound.

"I'll do anything to upset the other guys," Ziegler explained. "There's always one good player on every team who's a hothead. I go after him. Try to rile him up.Get him to come after me or something.

"I talk to the guys when they're at bat. I'm just trying to keep the ball in the park, which isn't easy in this game. I'll do anything I have to. Sometimes I run the bases with 'em and yell at 'em all the way around."

All this from a successful insurance agent for State Farm Mutual in Washington. In a recent game, however Ziegler, who says the game has become a job at age 34, had trouble keeping Cleveland's sluggers in the park. He was removed early in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader and Nick Sessoms did the rest of the pitching and got credit for all three Monument wins.

But, as Hutcherson pointed out, that's the way the league is. The games are not played for laughs. One league manager has already been fired (Cincinnati) and Monument catcher Janks Morton is currently under suspension for walking off the field in Detroit.

To the players, managers and owners, it is every serious business. Their goal is a full-time league and crowds averaging about 5,000.

Those are long-range objectives. More immediate goals include expansion from the current 12-city setup - franchises next year will cost $100,000 as opposed to $25,000 this year - and full-time radio in as many cities as possible (Cleveland now broadcasts all its games, home and away, and Kentucky boradcasts a few home games).

The games are played at a quick pace. Usually, a seven-inning game takes about 90 minutes. Home runs are normally produced in abundance. Hutcherson and Copenhaver have already combined for 60 home runs in 31 games this season.

The Monuments have been very successful thus far, running up a 19-12 record, good enough for a three-game lead in the leagus's four-team Eastern Division.

"It's real pleasant out here," said one fan, who said he played in a slowpitch summer league. "I came out first just because I was curious to see if they were any good. I came back because it was fun.

That's the type of attitude Ports and the rest of the league's owners like.

They feel the chance to watch Boom-Boom Hutcherson launch a shot or Johnny Dollar make a diving, sliding catch, and then having the opportunity to talk the whole thing over with the players after the game, will bring the fans out.

"Things are changing," Hutcherson said. "From now on, there's going to be a new saying. It's not going to be, Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet; it's going to be'softball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet."