Sometimes even Lee Roy Bandy realizes how absurd it is, this obsession of his. "There are times I've actually woken up in the middle of the night thinking about softball. It's 5 in the morning, and there I am, fixated on a pitch I popped up the day before or on the pitcher I'm going to face tomorrow. I mean, I'm 34 years old, for God's sake. At 34 a peron shouldn't be doing this."

The administrative offices of Worldwide Volkswagen Corp., where he works as a senior claims adjuster, are almost deserted late on this rainy Wednesday afternoon, but Bandy is not an indiscreet man. "I'll tell you something," he says. "I've turned down promotions in this company because of softball. I was offered jobs as company auditor, as district sales manager . . ." He grins again. "Uh-uh. No way. I would've missed too many games."

But anyone who knows Lee Roy Bandy, even a little bit, understands that for him softball is no joking matter.

"I'm only lucky my wife understands. I mean, I was married on a Friday night because I had games that weekend. When my first child was born, my wife's mother had to take her home from the hospital because I had a game that day. I swear, if I was married to any other woman I'd have been divorced long ago . . . What am I talking about? I've already been divorced once."

So, for that matter, have a startling number of the men with whom Bandy plays the game. Though no firm statistics on the subject have been compiled, the divorce rate among softball players is staggering.

"Listen," Bandy explains, "we just can't not play softball. In the winter, for God's sake, I take a ball into the basement and slam it against the wall to field the rebound. It drives my wife nuts."

"You think I'm out there for fun?" asks his teammate Junior DePalma, whose wife has yet to forgive him for the game he played the day after their marriage. "I have to play ball."

So it is that they fit into their lives dozens, sometimes hundreds, of games each season, often at the expense of families and careers and even their bodies.

According to statistics of the Oklahoma City-based Amateur Softball Association, there are 110,000 teams of serious softball players in the country today, up from 29,000 just a decade ago. In New York's Rockland County (the area where Bandy plays most of his ball, about 20 miles northwest of New York City), there are 40 softball leagues, each consisting of at least 10 teams, most with 20-player rosters. There are bartenders and businessmen, salesmen and schoolteachers. One fellow, a pitcher for a team in Paterson, N.J., gave up a $65,000-a-year job as a stockbroker to drive a cab because the Wall Street routine had not allowed him to play more than a couple of days a week. Another man -- now, in his late 30s, a legendary figure in Rockland County softball -- sacrificed not only a good job at a bank but also his marriage of 14 years and his three children; he currently lives on his savings in southern California and plays softball full time.

"Listen,"Bandy concedes after a moment, sitting back up in the chair, "I'm not saying my wife is completely happy with the situation. Last night she was fuming. 'Well,' she said finally, 'I guess you'll be playing ball tomorrow night, so I won't see you for our anniversary.'

"'Honey,' I said, 'it's a big game. We're playing Payton Elevators.' So I sent her flowers today." He pauses and considers a moment. "I don't feel I have to apologize for what I do. It's better to play ball than to mess around or drink, isn't it?" The grin. "Of course, a lot of guys fool around and drink and play softball."

What one ballplayer calls "the extracurriculars" are, in fact, of overriding importance to some players. But Bandy himself has made the trek to far-flung ball fields night after night, season after season, for only one reason: to win. And indeed, over the years the team for which he stars at third base, Holdt Landscaping, has won so regularly that it has come to assume almost legendary status.

But Lee Roy Bandy is worried. The team has gotten older, most of its starters approaching their mid-30s, and suddenly winning does not come so easily. Worse, the character of the team seems to be changing.

"Before, we took winning for granted," he says intently. "Now that it's work, a lot of the guys just don't get up for it anymore. But for some of us, for me. . . See, it's like I'm a gunslinger. I run into all these hotshot kid third basemen who tell me they're going to outclass me. Well, I live for that kind of stuff."

He rises from his desk, flings open his office door, and looks at the weather through a large window down the hall. "Damn , this rain won't stop."

Abruptly, on cue, the phone on his desk rings shrilly. He pounces on it -- "Lee Bandy" -- then relaxes. "Oh, yeah, it doesn't surprise me." He pauses. "Okay. Yeah, pretty soon."

He hangs up. "That was my wife. She called the ball field. The game's canceled. How do you like that?" he says, the thought apparently striking him for the first time. "I'm going to be spending my wedding anniversary with my wife."

On a cool evening in early May, Bandy is in uniform, lounging against the backstop of a fastidiously groomed field in West Nyack, N.Y., watching his teammates take batting practice.

"Look at that," he says, as Junior DePalma, one of his best friends on the team, lofts f shot high over the rickety wooden fence in right field and into the woods beyond. "Can that guy hit, or what?"

DePalma takes a few more cuts then drops his bat and joins Lee Roy.

"You're looking good up there."

Junior shrugs. "I ain't got my timing down yet."

Lee Roy grins and taps his midsection. "Tell me about it. We're old men, J.D."

"Yeah. But don't tell them ." Junior nods in the direction of the other team's bench, populated by players in uniforms bearing the logo TOWN AND COUNTRY DELI. The Deli players, most of whom look to be in the early 20s, stare with unabashed respect at the larger, older men practicing on the field.

In the seven years Bandy and his teammates have played together, they have borne as many names as they've had sponsors -- their jerseys this season, in this league, read OL, after the Orange Lantern, a restaurant in Paramus, N.J. -- but they continue to think of themselves as Holdt Landscaping, the team name under which they were launched and achieved such extraordinary success; this despite the fact that two years ago Arthur Holdt sold his business and moved to Florida.

When he assumes his position at third base for fielding practice, Bandy displays a set of uncanny reflexes, backhanding balls that appear to be past him. Behind him, in left field, Chuck Podgurski Jr. lopes after flies with a long, graceful stride; along the sidelines, Podgurski's father, Chuck Sr., at 56 the oldest player in this league, and, despite a heart attack two years back, still one of its best pitchers, whips practice risers drops with dazzling nonchalance.

Junior DePalma, known as the most talented catcher in the league, stands alone behind the backstop and shakes his head in wonderment. "Look at the talent out there. Sometimes I wonder how we ever lose."

A thick, powerful man of 31, with the droopy mustache and lively eyes of his forebears, DePalma, who lays carpet for a living, takes losses with even less equanimity than Bandy. On one memorable occasion, in the town of Moonachie, N.J., he actually had to be escorted off the field in a police patrol car after having infuriated an entire grandstandful of fans with a spectacularly obscene gesture aimed at an old lady who'd been razzing him.

The West Nyack Softball League -- otherwise known as the Deer Head league, after the tavern adjacent to the field -- is generally regarded as the toughest around. Though the game palyed here is known as modified fast pitch (meaning that windmill motions are illegal), almost every pitcher throws hard; one, John Jemison of the largely black team called Apollo, was recently clocked at 94 mph on a gun hauled down to the field by a cop ballplayer.

To the stupefaction of the small crowd in attendance, the young Town and Country player prove worthy opponenets. In fact, aided by a bonehead play by one of Holdt's substitute infielders, they assume a two-run lead early and dig in to hold off the champions.

The elder Podgurski, with his cool blue eyes and sinewy frame, is also a bona fide physical miracle. Despite the heart attack, despite severely arthritic knees that after two operations have left hinm feeling as if there is broken glass in the joints, he remains as competitive on the mound as he has always been in his job as a high-level executive with the phone company. A fireballer much earlier in his 45-year career, he has now made himself so accomplished a technician, so adept at changing speeds and brushing corners, that his recent record -- after two operations and a heart attack, he has won 54 games and lost six -- has been comparable to Jemison's.

Now, as he watches Junior DePalma loft a long fly ball toward right field for the final out, he can only shake his head. "Hard to believe," he mutters softly. "Hard to believe."

"Goddamn," says Bandy, standing beside him, "the kids beat us."

Junior DePalma's frustration is not easily allayed. For 10 minutes, driving through the leafy upper-middle-class communities of West Nyack and Blauvelt, Junior is silent. "I'll tell you the truth," he says finally. "It is harder than it used to be. I'm tired all the time these days. I'm playing softball so goddamn much I'm never home. I don't know how major league players do it, flying all over the place, having all those problems back home."

Things, he adds a moment later, have been anything but blissful at home. It is only six months since his reconciliation with his wife, Patti, following a two-year separation (a separation largely precipitated, he readily acknowledges, by the rigors of his life as a softball player), but already the battling has resumed. "She says she never sees me. Well, what an I supposed to do, I got softball every night. I gave her money to join Elaine Powers, the exercise place. She should do that ." He pauses, then adds wistfully, "I love my wife, man. She's hard on me, but I love her."

Through July the team has recovered from an early-season slump and is playing brilliantly. On Aug. 4, the men get their first taste of glory resurgent. No less an authority than the softball writer for Rockland's Journal-News, in a rundown of the 12 best teams in the county, names Orange Lantern No. 1, noting for good measure that Lee Roy Bandy is "considered the best all-around player in the county."

Contrary to all expectations, contrary to logic, Apollo (this season known as the Nyack Cardinals) is ranked not even second but third, behind PRIDE, the Puerto Rican team. John Jemison and his teammates are not pleased.

In person, Jemison is every inch as large as his reputation -- his is a weight lifter's body, 240 pounds of muscle packed into slightly less than 6 feet. When the Journal-News article is mentioned, even after a month, his features abruptly darken. "The team took it bad, man. We know it ain't true." He pauses. "I took it bad."

J.J. and more than a few of his Cardinal colleagues have let it be known that they are itching for a shot at Holdt in the league championships -- a gridge match the Holdt players anticipate with equal relish.

And so, when the confrontation at last becomes a reality -- when Podgurski shuts out PRIDE to guarantee Holdt the title in one of the league's two divisions, and Jemison pitches Apollo to the championship in the other -- there is tension in the West Nyack air as palpable as that in any major league city about to send a representative to the World Series.

The atmosphere on the evening of the first game -- this is to be a best-of-three affair -- very much reflects that fact. There are more people in attendance at the Deer Head this Friday evening than at any other game this season, more than 200 filling the stands and lining the foul lines. Bus Fritz, the Orange Lantern sponsor, is taking as much betting action as anyone, his thick bankroll coming in and out of his pocket time and again.

And from the outset, it appears that the faith of the Holdt backers is sure to be rewarded. The team strikes at Jemison before he can get his bearings, in the first inning stringing together enough base hits to produce three runs, two more than are typically registered against J.J. in an entire game. But more stirring still is their emotional tautness: the same men who so casually accepted defeat at the hands of teams like Town and Country Deli and the Doo Wops are tonight on their feet from the start, pulling for one another with the agonized need of teen-agers beseeching rock stars. It is as if in three months they have lost 10 years.

The fervor, abetted by flawless pitching and tight defense, appears likely to carry the day. As darkness begins to settle over the field (for we are within 72 hours of Labor Day and summer's end), Chuck Podgurski Sr. begins the final inning with a lead of 3-1. Then, abruptly, there is trouble: Jemison leads off with a long home run over the right field wall, and, surprisingly, the old pitcher appears rattled. Before two more batters are retired, he has loaded the bases on a single and two walks.

It is dusk, just this side of nighttime. Fifteen minutes earlier, the line drive the next batter lashes toward Holdt's fleet center fielder, Bryan Hassett, would surely have been snared without difficulty. But now Hassett has trouble sighting the ball off the bat, and it falls in front of him; he snatches it up on one bounce and fires home, desperate to head off the winning run. The ball hits Junior DePalma's glove in the same microsecond as the runner hits home plate -- and then it dribbles free.

Suddenly, all around DePalma, there is pandemonium -- the Apollo players mobbing their heroes, the crowd in an uproar -- but Junior remains where he is, sprawled in the dirt. Finally, after an eternity, he rises to his feet. "He'd have been safe anyway, right?"

On the Holdt bench, Chuck Sr. shakes his head disconsolately.

Manager Richie Raff walks over and places a hand on Junior's shoulder. "No one in the world could have held onto that ball, J.D."

So excrutiatingly difficult is this defeat to accept, and so dejected by it are the Holdt players, that in its aftermath manager Raff, heretofore an easygoing team steward, maker of lineups and attender of league meetings, elects to take a startling morale-boosting step. Before the teams's next contest, a tournament game that has no bearing on the championship series, he quietly presents each of the team's players -- minus one -- with a T-shirt reading I play softball with junior DEPALMA. These the men put on beneath their regular jerseys and, immediately before the game, on the bench, reveal them to a startled DePalma. He, in turn, is presented with his shirt: I AM JUNIOR DEPALMA.

Whether or not the shirts are responsible, the team instantly reverts to form. The Holdt players trounce their unfortunate tournament rivals, 6-0, with Chuck pitching a masterful one-hitter.

But two evenings later it is Jemison again. ythis time, however, the team is utterly, immovably on its game. Though Holdt's first-inning rally this evening results in but one run, old Podgurski offers as courageous a performance as he has given in all his years on the mound, holding the powerful rivals at bay throughout. Final score: Orange Lantern 1, Nyack Cardinals 0.

So the stage is set for the climatic game. There is, indeed, a curious sense of inevitability to the proceddings. The Holdt players almost to a man are confident; Jemison and his teammates, after their anemic previous performance, are wary.

"I can feel it," says Chuck Sr. on the bench before the contest. He pauses to gulp down his Tylenol and Gatorade. "We can all feel it. It's in our grasp."

That assurance is perhaps responsible for a large number of Holdt wives who have shown up for the game. Even Patti DePalma, once a regular but lately a very infrequent presence at the Deer Head, is in attendance. Tall, with large, luminous green eyes and shoulder-length brown hair, she is entirely as pretty as Junior always describes her. "I had to stop hanging around," she explains before the game. "This place" -- she nods at the tavern -- "can turn a person into a lush. But I guess this is a pretty important game."

And yet somehow, one it is under way, neither team plays with the crispness manifest in the first two encounters. For both sides the sense of urgency is still there, the desperation to prevail, but the pivotal plays come for neither.

At last it is the older team that gives way. Unable to sustain to the end the standard of brilliance that has carried Holdt this far, Chuck suffers a lapse of concentration in the fifth inning, walking three batters and surrendering three runs.

In a game like this one, such a lapse is almost always fatal. Though the Holdt batters mount a minor threat in the final inning, Jemison, laboring, shuts them down, sealing a 3-1 victory. And making the Cardinals the champions of the West Nyack Softball League. "Ah," sighs Lee Roy Bandy, as down as one ever sees him, "another year shot. I guarantee there are gonna be a lot of guys lying awake tonight thinking."

Probably none will lie awake quite as long as Chuck Podgurski Sr. An hour past the end of the game, just the slightest bit woozy after downing twice his usual quota of beers, he is still furious with himself. "I'm the one who lost it for us. Me . Three walks in one inning!"

No, he is assured, he's being silly. Those things happen in a game.

Chuck rejects the argument with a sharp shake of his head. "Discipline, that's what the game is about. That inning my mechanics were off; if my left foot doesn't skid, then I have no follow-through. Tonight I'm going home and making a list of the things I have to remember." He pauses, and suddenly his voice is softer. "You know, right up until the last out I was sure we were going to win it. I kept imagining the winning home run, and the uproar, and . . ." He stops. "Stupid, huh?"

Chuck Sr. does not say it, but a few minutes later, a few tables away, his son speculates that in fact his father might finally be ready to pack it all in. "He's talked about it," says Chuck Jr. evenly, "and frankly, I wouldn't blame him. The truth is, this team is just about finished. It's all downhill from here." He sips his beer and considers. "I'd be willing to bet that next year a whole lot of guys won't be back."

Indeed, the melancholy of the evening appears to be getting to even Junior DePalma. Inside the Deer Head Inn, between the pool table and the video game, he stands with a cue in his hand, thinking equally unthinkable thoughts. "No more," he pledges, "no more screwing up. This winter I'm gonna do what I have to do to make my marriage work. Ain't that right, Pat?"


She has, of course, heard it all before. Patti sips at her drink and laughs softly. "You really do have to get a buzz on in this place to tolerate all the softball. Look around. All these guys talking about old times, bragging about themselves. It's enough to drive a person bananas. And it never ends. That's the thing: it never ever ends."

Sure enough, at that moment, outside in the picnic area, two men are hunched over a table in the darkness, peering at the columns of statistics jotted on a piece of paper. They have been trying to decide, Bryan Hassett and Chuck Podgurski Sr., who should be the leadoff hitter for Holdt Landscaping next season, and who should bat second.