Baseball, the national pastime, is losing its grip to soccer as the predominant youth participation sport in the metropolitan area, according to a Washington Post suvey of local recreation departments and independent leagues.
About 50,000 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 19 are playing soccer this spring, compared with about 56,000 youngsters playing baseball and softball.
"No matter how much love you have for the game of baseball, the soccer boom is unprecedented," said Jim Wiltshire, sports coordinator for the Montgomery County Recreation Department. "The only thing close to it was the tennis boom."
"There are leagues you've never heard about, that I've never heard about," said Nelson Kobren, commissioner of the Metropolitan Washington Soccer Referees Association. "They're spreading like brushfire. There are new ones almost every week."
Soccer's increasing popularity is even greater in the fall, when there is no competition with softball and baseball for players and few conflicts over playing fields. The only sport soccer must contend with then is football, which has been estimated to have one participant for every 10 in soccer.
In addition, some organizations allow youngsters to join soccer programs at a younger age-some as young as 5. The starting age for softball and baseball programs - and the precursor variety of T-ball-usually is 7 or 8. That is, soccer is available to kindergarteners in some areas, perhaps two years earlier than other competitive sports.
Kobren won't even estimate how many youngsters are playing soccer.
"Who can tell if there are 40,000 or 100,000? We're running out of fields," he said, "and I can't even keep up with the demand for referees.
"When we (the association) started in 1968, there were only 16 (referees). Today we have over 400 and we can't keep our heads above water. I'm running out of paper to list the number of games we have this weekend, and there are plenty of games that don't have official referees."
The Post's survey indicates soccer has out-stripped baseball and softball in some areas, particularly in Fairfax and Montgomery counties.
In some cases, precise figures were unavailable from sources and rough estimates were given.
Fairfax and Montgomery counties are the area's hotbeds for soccer.
The numerous private clubs in Fairfax County account for roughly 26,000 spring soccer players.
That figure is up by 3,080 soccer players since 1973. By contrast, there are nearly 4,000 fewer youngsters playing baseball and softball than in 1973 in that county.
There are approximately 7,200 youths playing baseball in Montgomery County, Wiltshire said.
There about about 2,600 in the department's spring soccer program. The Wheaton Boys Club counts 776. But the largest growth has been in the semi-private Montgomery Soccer Inc. (MSI) program.
Sylvia McPherson, executive director of MSI, said the league started with 60 youths in 1971 and numbers 6,780 this spring. The fall roster is slightly smaller.
Nevertheless, Tim Hughes, a spokesman for Little League Baseball Inc., from the headquarters of that organization in Williamsport, Pa., said:
"There are more kids playing (nationally) today than there were a few years ago. There are about 2.5 million kids playing this year. As far as I can tell, there's no decline in the D.C. area, but there is a period of slow growth."
There are about 9,000 youngsters playing Little League baseball in Northern Virginia, about 1,2000 in Prince George's and 1,800 in D.C.
"We've been growing by leaps and bounds," said Lou Zwick, a district Little League commissioner in Maryland. "We had only 12 leagues in 1972 and last year we had 36. It got so big we had to split the district. We don't even realize soccer is out there."
"There's no question that the decline of the baseball participation is related to the growth in soccer," said Everett Germain, president of the soccer-dominated Annandale Boys Club.
One of soccer's attractions is that equipment costs are much lower than in other sports.
There are other attractions of the sport, such as those pointed out by parents at a recent MSI game.
"Soccer doesn't offer the physical danger of contact sports like football," said Roger Stroth of Potomac, who has two sons playing, Bob, 7, and Michael, 8.
"It gives many more kids a change to participate and there isn't a hangup on the star system. Everyone plays a half," he said.
"In baseball, if a child is standing at bat and misses, everyone points at him and he can get embarrassed," said Anne Stroth. "In soccer, a mistake now can be turned into a plus in a few seconds, so there isn't the pressure on him that there is in other sports."
The youngsters-they do play the games, not the coaches or parents-share an enthusiasm for their respective sport.
At Harmony Hills Elementary School in Wheaton, Coach Fred DeMino directs his squad of 8- and 9- year-olds through drills. This select (or traveling) team has on it the best players in the Wheaton Boys Club born in 1970.
The players demonstrate a surprising skill level for their age. Each would rather play soccer than baseball.
"I like soccer better because you don't ever strike out-you know what I mean," said Hal Toler, an 8-year-old who has been playing soccer several years. "And one person doesn't have to hit a home run to score, or nothing like that. In soccer, you got teamwork."
Most team members cited the scoring of their first goal as their most memorable soccer moment.
But 8-year-old fullback Michael Wheat had an insight on defense. "Man, it's pretty fun when they come down at you with practically their whole team and you only have three people to stop them," Wheat said. "That's what it's all about."
Meanwhile, 12 miles and a county away at Buck Lodge Junior High School in Adelphi in Prince George's County, Jim Kervic drilled grounders to the Adelphi White Sox, the team of 11- and 12-year-olds he coaches from the Adelphi Boys Club.
The White Sox hold to the tradition of baseball. Unlike members of the Wheaton team, who play only soccer, most of the White Sox have played both sports-yet they prefer basefall.
"Baseball is the game," said 12-year-old George Libbee, as he swung an imaginary bat. "There is nothing like the contact of hitting the ball."
"In soccer you always have to run too much, so I like baseball better," said 11-year-old Bert Sutcliffe.
Last year there were 1,200 girls and boys playing baseball and 240 girls on softball teams in Arlington.This year the department anticipates an increase of 500 in the baseball program.
By contrast, soccer has grown from 384 youths in 1970 to roughly 3,500 per season.
Baseball participation is up in Alexandria, too. James Dunn, the city's youth sports coordinator, said there were 400 players five years ago and 810 today.
But soccer also is up, according to John Vinci of the Alexandria Soccer Association. While there were 1,100 youths playing five years ago, today's number is close to 2,000.
Samuel LaBeach, associate director of the District's recreation department, said there are 1,500 youths playing soccer and 12,000 in the softball program.
Besides the recreation department, there are 1,000 youths in the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club baseball program and 150 in its soccer program.
Additionally, the Capitol Hill Soccer League has 233 youth players, of whom only 114 play for the Soccer on the Hill club, according to president Paul Cromwell. The others play in Northern Virginia.
The Prince George's recreation department operates its soccer program in the fall and last year had 4,273 children playing soccer, according to the department's Joseph (Reds) Vernon.
There are 3,405 youths on the department's baseball and softball teams.
Most of the county's independent Boys and Girls Clubs offer soccer in the fall.
However, when figures from the Mid-Maryland, Bowie, Oxon Hill and Camp Springs soccer associations are totaled, there are approximately 4,500 youths playing spring soccer in Prince George's County. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By William Coulter for The Washington Post