They are the youngest of the old, a group of men in their early 40s who are a step too slow to play in the majors and a step too fast for their opposition in tonight's fifth annual National Old Timers Baseball Classic in RFK Stadium.

It's a curious state of limbo. Many of the skills that brought them acclaim in the major leagues still are there. But not everyone can be a Phil Niekro -- at 47 he pitched a two-hitter for Cleveland yesterday -- and there are no "Middle-Aged Games," so they choose to be lumped in with men often 20 years their senior.

"When I was playing, you never even thought about old-timer games," said Glenn Beckert, 46, who played 11 years for the Chicago Cubs and San Diego. "You thought you would stay young all your life."

"I was hoping I would never get old enough for one of these," said Catfish Hunter, 40, the baby of the more than 50 old-timers on the American and National league rosters. He said he was just hoping to play in this game, having been told at a similar game in Yankee Stadium two years ago that he was "not old enough yet."

"I told them when I got old enough to call me back," he said.

For this group, the memories of the major leagues are razor sharp.

"I see some of these guys that are the second or third catchers on major league teams, and I know I could keep up with them," said Jerry Grote, 43, who caught 16 years for the New York Mets before ending his career in 1981. "I say to myself, 'Dammit, I wish I could get back there and do it.' You know it doesn't matter how old you are, as long as you can do the job."

Ed Kranepool, 41, a former teammate of Grote's on the Mets, agreed that it was hard to give the game up. "I don't think anyone ever loses the feel of wanting to keep playing," he said. "I miss the competitiveness."

A competitive streak runs through these games as well, but it is tempered by the simple facts of 79-year-olds such as Luke Appling having to bat against 41-year-olds such as Tug McGraw. Hunter said that sometimes the younger players don't try their hardest. "The last one of these I played, in Oakland," he said, "I threw less than half-speed. Like batting practice."

However, no one wants to embarrass himself. "You keep saying you're here for the fun of it, but everyone tries his very best," Grote said. "Every hitter walks up determined to whack one."

In some ways, graduating to the old-timer circuit makes these men who were called veterans just a few years ago into kids all over again. They get to play alongside some of their childhood idols and provide an eager audience when the baseball stories about people they often have never met are told and retold.

"I always came out to watch these games because these were the guys I followed when I was growing up," Kranepool said. "Some of them were my idols. As a player, maybe you didn't feel right about getting autographs from these guys, but I'm going to make sure to get them now."

Grote said he liked the locker room scene the most of any aspect of the game. "I pretty much sat in awe at the first one of these I played and just listened to the guys talk. If you go in there, you better have galoshes, a rain suit and a shovel, though. It runs pretty deep."

As much as the players enjoy seeing each other, fans often seem to enjoy watching to see if the old guys can still do it even more. They have been coming to old-timer games in increasing numbers, and this season the interest inspired Equitable Life Insurance to set up an old-timers circuit in conjunction with the major league baseball office.

Old-timer games are being played in all 26 major league parks this season, and the deal is working out well, according to Richard Levin, director of news for major league baseball. "We've had a lot of support from the fans," he said. "And the players love it as well, because it's an opportunity to step back into the adulation of the fans briefly."

The Washington old-timers game is not part of the series, but some of the same players will participate. The Equitable-sponsored game in Baltimore will be Aug. 10.

By playing in the Washington game, the young "old-timers" get a lot of grief from their cohorts. "I get a lot of teasing from people three or four years younger than me," Grote said. " 'An old-timers game? You've got to be kidding!' they say."

"I coach an American Legion team, and the kids are always are getting on me about it," Hunter said.

But the players take it all good-naturedly, looking forward to another chance to catch up on old times. "It's always a thrill to see the guys, because you lose touch when you leave the game," Kranepool said. "Even if it's only for two or three days, it brings it back like yesterday.