The phone rang in the studios of WMAL radio at 5 p.m., and the man on the line said he had a question to discuss on the air with sports talk show host Ken Beatrice. He was informed that Beatrice's "Sportscall" didn't go on until 7:05, and he should call back then.

"Later on I can't get through," he protested. "Put me on 'hold' for a couple of hours."

Such is the ardor with which some area sports fans, and a few who call long distance, go about reaching Beatrice, who brought his uniquely knowledgeable sports call-in two Washington from WBZ radio in Boston last March. Despite a mildly grating New England accent and a fondness for cliches - he recently referred to Pat Sullivan, the former star passer from Auburn University as "the ex-Obbin quaddabahk" - Beatrice has attracted something of a cult following here.

While some people are driven to distraction by his tendency to overdetail every answer and comment, telling more than most of us could ever want to know about a given topic, other listeners worship this undeniably encyclopedic knowledge and computer-quick recall as a priceless resource. Thorough familiarity with his subject matter, expressed with a kind of Boy Scoutish zest for games and doing verbal good deeds, is Beatrice's hallmark.

Five nights a week - from 7:05 to 8 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday, 8:05 to 10 on Saturday and Sunday, and at halftime of Redskins and Monday night football games - the station's switchboard is jammed with peole dialing 432-WMAL, hoping to be on the air when Beatrice declares with inimitable enthusiasm, "You're next!" - is to an umpire.

There is a prevailing notion that most talkshow callers are an assortment of chronic malcontents, longely hearts, argumentative know-it-alls, bar-room belligerents, little people frus- trated at having sand kicked in their faces, and illiterates incapable of composing a letter of Ann Landers.

This may be the case with some shows on which the host specializes in sarcasm and relies on outrageous exchanges. Not so with Beatrice, who would rather swallow The Baseball Register than put down a caller.

His audience seems to represent, as he suggests, "the entire spectrum" - a good cross-section of young and old people, male and female, urban and suburban, from all walks of life, united by "the kindred spirit of being sports fans."

"I think there's a myriad of reasons they call," says Beatrice. "Curiosity about some team they favor, a strong opinion about something, a question, a reaction to something they have seen or read or heard about.

"Basically, I think it's just that sports fans love to talk about sports. They do it with their friends, just as I did; before I got into the media business at all, I used to do 'Sportscall' from my den at home.

"This show gives them an outlet where they know they will be treated in a civilized, rational manner," adds Beatrice, who would be reasonable and polite even if Attila the Hun called one night. It is easy to imagine their conversation.

Beatrice: "You're next on Sportscall.' Thank you for calling, sir, and what would you like to talk about tonight."

Attila: "Plunder and pillage in the Fifth Century."

Beatrice: "Great. Let's do it."

Attila: "I've always been a fan of the Huns. Don't you think that they were meaner, nastier, dirtier, and generally more despicable than the Tartars, Visigoths, Ghengis Khan's hordes, or any other barbarians?"

Beatrice) "Well, let's look at the personnel . . ." And he would proceed to review in excruciating detail the depth charts of each of the marauding bands, outlining prospective trades, describing intricately the moves of a young Mongolian who could undoubtedly help the Huns in a couple of years ("Let me tell you, that kid can play the game").

Attila: "O.K. for plunder and pillage, but what about taking young maidens for ransom and sacrifice?"

Beatrice: "Sir, I'd love to talk to you about ransom and sacrifice, but there are others on the line and I do have to give them a chance. It's been a real pleasure talking to you, and do call again . . ."

"The only way I finally got through," said Rich Tovornik, 29, of Laurel, assistant chief engineer of Muzak, "was just to keep dialing, dialing, dialing. It would be busy and I'd hang up and immediately dial again. I had tried maybe 10 times before and this was the first time I go on."

A regular listener who insists that Beatrice's show is the best of its type called in one evening recently to play "Whatever became of so-and-so." He was curious as to the whereabouts of Rich Saul (Redskin Ron Saul's twin brother, a Los Angeles Rams lineman), who went to school with his sister-in-law, and former Ohio State star Jim Stillwagon, with whom be went to school at Augusta Military Academy.

"The other times I've tried to call, it's been mainly a response," said Tovornik. "Like last month, there was a discussion of youth hockey and parent involvement. I wanted to speak on that one because I used to be a coach in the Beltway Peewee League.

"My philosophy was that winning and losing didn't matter, it was the fun of playing the game that counted. I let every kid play equal time. The other parents voted me out of being a coach."

"I think the service the show provides is threefold," says Beatrice, who admits that if he were independently wealthy he would do if for free, for personal amusement.

"No. 1, informational. The more you understand something: any hobby, the more you can enjoy it and appreciate its subtleties. One of the great things about sports as a diversion is that it doesn't end when the game does.

"No. 2, it's a forum. Callers can agree or disagree and know they will be treated with dignity, respect, and hopefully a degree of intelligence. And if one guy calls and says, 'I think Joe Theismann should be the Redskins' quarterback, not Billy Kilmer,' he's reinforcing the opinion of thousands of listeners who think that way. Then somebody else calls and says Kilmer should be starting, and that reinforces the opinion of thousands who have been saying the same thing in the office.

"No. 3, I think it's entertaining. We talk serious sports, but we also have some fun, some very lighthearted discussion."

"The next guy is a regular caller. He asks me out all the time," said Maric Antipa, the producer of Sportscall. "I don't even know how he know how he knows my name because Ken never uses it on the air, but he always says, 'Hi, Marcia.' He's dependable. He always asks good questions."

When a caller gets through, it is Antipa who answers the phone, asks what his question is, notes the subject, and puts him on "hold." Just before he goes on the air, she alerts him, tells him to turn off his radio to eliminate "feedback," and reminds him to be brief.

"I have a responsibility not to let kooks on," she says. "I've never had anybody qualify for that, but I've kept a few off because I thought they had too much to drink.

"The reason for the screen is, a) to find out if people can go on the air - if they're abusiveor something, I can't put them on; b) to keep track of what we talked about for when we go back later and look at the show; and c) to help control the flow of topics.

"For the most part we put them on in the order they come in. If everybody wants to talk about football, we just let it flow. Ken makes most of those decisions on the air. If he feels somebody is talking too long about something no one else is interested in, he'll steer them away. But he doesn't know what they want to talk about until he picks up the says, 'You're next . . .'

"Sometimes people forget their question, so I say 'Why don't you think about it' and get back to them. You can't let them go on the air cold. I won't let them go on just to blab about anything. But we've never had to cut anyone off, ever. We're on a 14-second tape delay, but we've never had to use it."

In five years of hosting call-ins, Beatrice has only had to "blip" five callers, all for obscenity.

"It was always accidental. None of them were yelling at me or another caller," he explains. "I remember one guy in Boston, talking about the Bruins, and I could hear the emotion rising in his voice. Somebody had made an absolutely horrible play, and the caller said, 'He shot, and he took the f - shot one stride too late.'

"Well." Beatrice says, almost apologetically, "I had to blip him. But it's never been people ranting. 'You're a no-good, rotten s.o.b. I've never had that."

Unlike some hosts, Beatrice never cuts anyone off for disagreeing with him, or bullies of long-winded caller.

"I'll say, 'Sir, I'm terribly sorry, I've enjoyed talking with you but I've got to move on at this point,' or, 'In fairness to the others who are waiting, I'm going to have to leave now. Please call again.' It can be handled that way," he says. "You don't have to say, 'Hey, get off the line, you dummy.'"

It was her first time, and she was understandably nervous. But after the initial inhibitions, it was wonderful. She will do it again.

"I think after you break the ice with the first call, your appetite is whetted," said Shirley Berti of Annandale.

Her husband is more experienced. John Berti, an employee of the U.S. Army, has called Beatrice four times. Shirley, an opera singer and avid sports fan before she met John, called to applaud the Washington Capitals' trade of Hartland Monahan. ("He has a great shot, but didn't shoot at the goal enough or do anything in the corners.")

"I think Ken is a great interviewer, very well informed. He makes you feel at home," she said.

They always have fond remembrances of the first time.

Like many regular callers, Bob Bissell, 41, a commercial photograper from Silver Spring, knows the ins and outs of getting on the air. "If somethings has come up during the week to prompt a comment, I try to call before the show starts. I know they line up calls 10 or 15 minutes before they go on the air, so that's when I call with my preprepared comment," he said.

"I try to call once a week, usually on Sunday. I have two children, and calling in on a program like this does take a little time - you have to figure on spending at least of half-hour to 45 minutes."

Why does he call?"

"I'm kind of a call-in show freak," he admitted. "I guess that's the ham in me. I feel I can add something. I like to feel involved. Sometimes my wife will be listening at home and she'll say, 'I heard you on the radio tonight.' Other people mention it. It's a bit of an ego kick."

"Some kids call in just to hear themselves on the radio. They don't have serious questions," said Ellen Manowitz of the WMAL promotion dept. "Others try to stump the sports-caster, especially because it's Ken. You know, 'Who was the 1947 National Tiddlywinks champion?' The thing is, he knows all those facts."

While the station flacks like to extol Beatrice as a trivia whiz, the down plays that reputation as aggressively as he does that fact he has a Ph.D. in psychology from Ohio University. ("That sounds pretentious. The only time I mention my doctorate is when I need an airline reservation fast.")

"It's kind of like going to law school. It doesn't matter so much what you know, as long as you know where to look it up," he says of the inevitable trivial inquiries.

"I don't have an ego problem if somebody asks me who won the Heisman Trophy in 1971 amd I can't remember off the top of my head. I tell the caller. I'll find out and get back to him. Usually by the end of the show somebody will have called in the answer anyway." This particular night, Mitchell Melkin, 19, a University of Maryland student from Silver Spring, did. The answer: Pat Sullivan, the aforementioned "ex-Obbin quaddabahk."

Beatrice does have a near-photographic memory, but instead of storing up record books, he tries to absorb a massive body on information on current and upcoming personnel, strategies, rules, coaching tendencies and all the other variables that interact to determine the outcome of games.

His is a working knowledge, culled from out-of-town newspapers, magazines, books, films, and reports from the 31 staffers who work with him in the nationwide scouting bureau he runs as an avocation.

"He's a marvel," said one devoted fan. "I don't know how anybody can know so much about so many different sports."

John Jackson, 30, of Washington, who work's at the Library of Congress, is a regular listener. So is his girlfriend.

He likes to call in about football, basketball and sports philosophy: "I think sports mirrors life, and if one pays enough attention there are lessons to be learned," he said. "A great contest in sports is like a fine novel, symphony, or piece of theater. There are verities to be reconfirmed. I know Ken feels the same way and I like to discuss that with him.

"It's hard to catch the show literally every day because that requires a routine that my schedule doesn't permit, but I hear Ken three four days out of five," Jackson said. "I call once every two or three weeks. I would call more but I try to be considerate. I know there are a lot of people trying to get through.

"Usually when I can't resist the temptation to pick up the phone it's in response to something. Like one night, a man called and said the show souldn't be on the air, it took up an hour that could be devoted to music. That infuriated me.

"He's entitlted to his opinion, of course. Not everyone is in love with Ken Beatrice's show. But a lot of sports fans in this town have wanted a show like this for years, and I said so. Not everybody is served by the same old music."

"I've always thought the sportscasters in this city are awfully limited in information," said Maurice Boyd, 29, of Silver Spring, a personnel analyst. He describes himself as "the type of person who likes to get on these talk shows, about sports, politics anything. I'll put in my three cents' worth (inflation there, no doubt) about the Caps or Redskins, Congress or the City Council."

Boyd considers himself well-informed on most subjects and enjoys matching intellects. "I read the papers every day, but I can't call and argue with (Washington Post sportswriters) Ken Denlinger or Leonard Shapiro, or with George Allen," he said. "It's nice to be able to express an opinion or predict doom, as I did before the Redskins-Cowboys game. 'The Skins are weak at left cornerback without pat Fischer, and Gerard Williams on Drew Pearson will be a disaster, I predicted, and I guess I was borne out."

Boyd listens to "Sportscall" nightly and calls in every week to 10 days. "It's therapeutic. It gives me a chance to be Nick Charles or Dan Lovett or Glenn Brenner, to be analytical about sports," he said. "Nothing personal against Gerard, but I knew George should have gotten another cornerback during the preseason. Not that George listens to my opinion when I'm on the show, but it's nice to say it to someone besides a few friends and my 8-year-old son."

There are some regular callers - like humorist "Romar of Chantilly," who appointed himself "the one-man Ken Beatrice Critiquing Society" - whom Beatrice recognizes immediately by voice.

Another is "Yankee Joe" Day, 30, an illustrator. He likes to get the latest scoops on the New York Yankees and Giants. Many Beatrice listeners have a rooting interest in out-of-town teams they followed before moving here, but not so "Yankee Joe."

"I was born and raised in Washington, but my father introduced me to class early," he said. "He gave me a Yankee uniform when I was 6 and I wore it all the time. my only complaint about this town is that it's impossible to get a Giants Jersey. The Dolphins, the Colts, all the scum teams, but not the class."

Day used to listen to Warner Wolf's erstwhile talk show on WTOP, but considers Beatrice's far superior. "Ken knows a lot," he said admiringly. "Mr. Warmed-Over Wolf was a sawed-off shrimp who thought he was the poor man's Howard Cosell. He had a bunch of books with him. If he didn't know something, you could hear him flipping through to look it up."

"I think it was the second or third show i ever did," Beatrice recalled, "when somebody called and said: 'Did you hear that idiot who called a little while ago'

"I don't get up on a soap box very often, but I said, 'Now wait a minute. I know of only one man whose opinion was ever engraved in stone. I am not that man, nor are you. ('Noah ah you.') Everyone is entitled to his opinion, and just because we disagree doesn't make him stupid."

Beatrice is fanatic about this. "When I give an opinion, I try to give my reasons for it, and as a result the people who call in do the same. That way we have a discussion rather then an argument, a debate of fact rather than a shouting match. We're not adversaries," he says.

"It's true that some people who call are not of great intelligence. There are different intellectual levels and depths of knowledge. But does that mean they're not entitled to common courtesy?

"I'm not going to humiliate or belittle anyone on the air. These people are my guests. I invited them to call in. They deserve the same consideration as if they were sitting in my home. I've tried to encourage respect and basic human decency across the board, and I think people respond in turn to the way they're treated. I only wish I had the wherewithal to encourage it throughout society."

Some listeners take it upon themselves to let Beatrice know when they feel he has strayed from his standards.

These is, for instance, a group of 60 owner-operators of taxicabs at Dulles Airport who listen realigiously to "Sportscall," often discussing it over morning coffee or after-work beers. They don't call in frequently because they are usually on the road, hauling passengers, but they appointed Don Brew, 33, of Alexandria to protest a statement they agreed was in poor taste.

"I didn't want to do it on the air, so I deliberately waited until late in the show to call. I knew he calls back the people left on the line after he goes off the air," Brew said, noting an unusual practice that many Beatrice partisans appreciate.

"He made a comment three times one week to the effect that the only way to stop Tony Dorsett of the Cowboys was to get on top of a building with a high-powered frifle and shoot him. Now, I'm a Dallas fan - I've got a Cowboys bumper sticker on my car, which gets me in quite a bit of trouble in this area - but event he Redskins fans objected to this.

"We consider 'Sportscall' a class show. Ken has a profound amount of knowledge. We're very impressed with the way he treats all his caller, including some who border on being obnoxious. We objected to that comment because it didn't fit in with our concept of what the show is and represents to all of us.

"He said he was paraphrasing something one of the Redskin assistant coaches said to him. I told him, 'Surely you hear a lot of things in conversations with coaches and athletes you wouldn't repeat on the air.' You don't kid about hijackings and assassinations and those kind of subjects.

"I said that was completely out of character for you and your show,' and he accepted that."