A dozen miles outside the Washington Beltway, the land escapes from the tight grip of man, and, basically, by the time you get to rural Charles County, is returning to nature. It isn't beautiful yet, but it's getting better.

By the time you turn off the main drag in the little Maryland town of Waldorf -- left at the brick police station, the 100 yards back across the railroad tracks and into the clearing in the trees -- you have, in a few minutes, left the capital of the United States and traveled to America.

"Chaney Field . . . Home of Waldorf Little League . . . Enjoy Coca-Cola" proclaim signs at the entrance to the five small baseball fields with a dirt parking lot in their midst.

This is baseball at the bottom line -- simple, unadorned, economical, every penny counted, but perfectly satisfactory. If you're a kid and you want to play baseball, here it is. But no come-on, no frills.

A foul ball can reach the railroad tracks.A forest of electrical transformers -- the town's power source -- looms above the old trees.

The infields are hard, baked dirt full of pebbles, but no rocks or glass. The outfields are splotchy grass, but green. The waist-high cyclone fences surrounding the fields have no fancy distance markers. There are no lights. Get finished by sundown.

The chalk scoreboards aren't used. The bleachers are half-full when they hold a dozen parents. This is word-of-mouth baseball.

"What inning is it?. . . What's the score?. . . Who's winning?", a player asks his mother in quick succession.

And he's the pitcher.

"Coach," pleads an 11-year-old whose back is barely big enough to contain the uniform words Ken Dixon Chevrolet-Buick-Honda, "somebody's got to help me.Scott just filled my batting helmet with dirt."

This is partly baseball, but mostly growing up, mostly one of those few remaining places where everybody gathers to pass on the tribe's collective sense of itself.

Teen-age girls ignore the three games that are in progress simultaneously, instead grooming each others' hair, or wandering off to sit on big, old red-with-rust oil barrels to share a soda with a boy.

Everywhere you look, there are unself-conscious rituals, rites of passage and a gentle, unhurried symbolism.

Slide into home and get a strawberry on the hip as a badge of courage. Get hit by a pitch and bite your lip to keep from crying.

"I've got to throw this ball out of the game," the ump announces to the little crowd as the dented batter limps toward first base. "It's flat on one side."

The child laughs to keep from crying.

The hops here are half-true, just like lots of things in the hard-working, when-do-I-get-my-break life hereabouts.

"Don't flinch. Hange in there," a father yells to his second baseman son. "You have to face the hops."

These fields are like gardens where the bumper crop is vignettes.

The Lions' catcher comes to bat with the bases loaded and an adult fan whispers to him in the on-deck spot, "Boy, if you hit a home run, I'll give you a dollar bill."

"You don't have to do that," says the team's coach to the man. "I give any of 'em $5 for a home run."

As the hitter gets to the plate, a woman's voice cuts through the drone of chatter, yelling, "Come on, baby. Throw to the mitt."

Of course, it is the mother of the 12-year-old pitcher and the hurler in question really is her baby.

Thus do we learn the importance of games, and the winning of them.

It is probably silly to search for rights and wrongs in something so true to the grain of daily life as summer, baseball and Fourth of July week. These scenes don't leave us with moralisms, but with memories.

The air toward evening, as the sun starts to go down, is full of humidity, dirt hanging in a haze, and the over-powering, over-sweetness of chlorophyll and pollen. It is so delicious, so redolent of childhood, that a sneeze is a relief -- a return to the present.

In a time that insists we live by decades -- that we clutch at the '50s, '60s and '70s as they leave us behind like perplexed hitchhikers -- these fields are a testament that things change with a merciful lassitude.

"Kids never change. They're already great. Neither do the adults. They're sometimes a pain," said Waldorf umpire Joe Brown, a wholesale glass salesman.

"Adults take it too serious. The kids understand," says Brown. "Last week, I had two good catchers working in front of me. Whenever either one of 'em was hitting -- so that all three of us were at the plate together -- we all took a vote on the balls and strikes.

"I told 'em, 'Boys, we gotta do this quick, so the people won't start to wonder,'" Brown said with a laugh. "They called every darn pitch right. I never had to break a tie.

"One of 'em turned to me and said, 'Well, Mr. Brown, I guess I just took a third strike.'

"I told him, 'Yes, I guess you did.'"

That sort of innocence seldom lasts too long. At what Waldorf calls the "major league" level of 9- to 12-year-olds, you can vote on the calls. But don't try it on the adjacent field where the 13- to 15-year-old "senior" Little Leaguers are playing.

"I called one the other night that the 'Senior' catcher didn't like. He went out and talked to his pitcher. Next pitch -- a letter-high fastball -- came in and he never tried to catch it. It hit me right in the chest protector.

"I warned him, but he did it again. I went to his coach and said, 'Your catcher has to move to another position, or I'll put him out of the game. I didn't come out here after working all day to be used for target practice.'"

At the 9-to-12 stage, however, baseball is still a cherub game, for the most part.

True, as the Jaguars and Pirates walked off the field this particular evening, one angel yelled at the other, "We'll get you nitbrains next year." "Yeah, well who won this game, huh?" inquired the other cherubim.

However, a few feet away, the Lions and the Carruth and Son Concrete Dodgers had just ended the final game of their regular seasons. The Lions, bound for the glory of the playoffs, invited the Brewers to share in an enormous chocolate cake.

"Well, another season down the drain," said a small defeated Dodger, glove in one hand, napkin with cake in the other.

"Did you make all-star?" asked a girl of the same age, but much taller.

"Nah, but I will next year," said the boy, turning to his father to ask, "What's for supper?"

"Spaghetti." "Uuuuuughhhh," he said, as though it were fried catcher's mitt.

"Big strong baseball player won't eat spaghetti?" asked dad.

The big strong baseball player wolfed down the remains of his cake, sensing perhaps that, if left uneaten, it might become a casualty of the bargaining process.

While the Dodgers disbanded, the Lions held a team meeting.

"We'll practice for the playoffs at my house," said the coach. "If you can't come, call me. Does everybody know my phone number?"

Without a cue, the team chanted the correct phone number in unison.

How come Billy Martin couldn't get the Yankees to do that?

"Everybody try to be there," interjected a very young and perhaps overly enthusiastic assistant coach. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot, guys. Trophies and everything."

The Lions, by and large, seemed to look on the remains of the chocolate cake as more of a once-in-a-lifetime shot. After making sure no morsel remained, the pride of the Lions meandered over to the last inning of the senior game between the Route 301 Seven-11 Pirates and the Anderson Hardware Brewers.

They might as well have walked into another world.

Instead of pitches that looked hump-backed and friendly, here the ball whistled and swerved. The collisions at the plate that looked so amusing among 12-year-olds looked extremely different at 14.

The Pirates and Brewers ended their evening in a beaut of a rhubarb when the last out of a one-run game was called on an obscure appeal of an interference decision by an umpire. Nobody understood anything, so everybody got mad.

Various coaches did their Earl Weaver imitation. The two umps, with no tunnel to flee toward, had to explain the unexplainable to every concerned parent as they walked toward their cars. A multitude of imprecations, on the order of "You stink" and "It's all fixed," were muttered loud enough for the umps to hear.

The mothers of two players had to be separated by their husbands when one said, "Well, I wouldn't want to win like that," and the discussion began to escalate.

While the adults calmed themselves, the unruffled children discussed more important matters.

"Is that a 10-speed?" one boy asked another on a bike.

"I thought you guys were baseball players," one player teased two boys who were wearing jacket patches for a soccer team.

"We had a better soccer record than you guys had in baseball," answered the other.

Had they been the directors of the area's fiercely competing baseball and soccer youth programs, it might have been time to call for lawyers.

Instead, the baseball player grinned at the soccer player and said, "What can I say?"

The biggest field was empty except for one child too young, even for Little League. He had no uniform, just a ball and glove.

On the mound, he toed the rubber, looked in for the sign, imaginary took his stretch, held the runner on first base, then threw his best fast ball half-way up the backstop.

Slowly, he walked into the screen, picked up his ball and walked back to the mound.

The sun was a deep red in the top branches of the trees. The heavy smell of summer and dust was on the diamond.

The small boy doctored the hill, then looked in again for his sign.

He was in a big jam. And, at the rate things were going, it might take him until dark to work his way out.