ON any spring weekend, they are stacked up like airplanes at La Guardia -- soccer teams, waiting to get on the field.
Finding a field for a pickup baseball game or an impromptu soccer scrimmage is nearly impossible -- municipal recreation and school fields are booked by organized sports leagues well in advance of the season. But even leagues have trouble finding space to play and practice.
''Scheduling games is becoming increasingly hard because most of the town programs are growing at a faster rate than their fields,'' said Larry Bell, a Westchester Youth Soccer League board member. ''As a result, there's been rationing of the fields, where some towns won't register teams in the spring. Things have gotten fairly acute if you can't let kids play.''
Field space was so tight in Greenburgh this year that the Elmsford Little League had to limit the number of children who could sign up.
''We reached our maximum with 470 kids -- we only have two fields, and there are only so many hours and weeks we can schedule games,'' said Howard Herzenberg, the league's president. He said 20 to 30 children were turned away.
Things are so crowded that when Gwen Rankin went to drop off her 12-year-old daughter, Mimi, for her first soccer practice of the season at Eastchester High School, she couldn't find the team. It had been relegated to a strip of grass on the sidelines.
''I checked the upper field at Eastchester High, and there was a team there,'' Ms. Rankin said. ''Then I went to the lower field, and there was someone else there. So I tried Tuckahoe and Bronxville, where they also sometimes practice. It turns out they were on a side grass, not a real field, but she missed her first practice because I didn't know to look off the field.''
County Executive Andrew J. Spano acknowledged the problem in his State of the County address in April, promising to upgrade ball fields at Croton Point Park in Croton-on-Hudson, install lighting at county-owned ball fields and develop parkland for baseball diamonds and soccer fields.
''This is a quality-of-life issue,'' Mr. Spano said in an interview. ''When the county got involved in parks, we got involved in getting passive park area for hiking and boating and that kind of stuff. Now, we feel it's our responsibility to work with municipalities and schools to develop ball fields.''
Mr. Spano has already committed $25 million to preserving open space, but his budget for 2002 includes an additional $10 million, much of which will be used to buy parkland for athletic fields.
He said the county would have a new focus on preserving land for active, as well as passive, recreation.
The County Parks and Recreation Department is conducting a countywide inventory of fields to determine what is available, which fields need improvement and what areas might be developed. Recreation departments, which have traditionally had the unhappy duty of allocating the fields, welcome the county's interest.
''Our department cuts the pie,'' said Robert Snyder, New Castle's superintendent of recreation. ''In the springtime, soccer is competing against baseball, there's lacrosse and the adult softball league -- they're all competing for space. Trying to schedule things is like trying to figure out how to put 10 pounds of macaroni in a 5-pound box.''
The reasons for the squeeze are many. First, there is a surge in the number of children; county census figures show that the under-18 age group rose 21 percent in the last decade, compared with a rise of 1.2 percent for those over 18. Not only are there more children, but they are also playing more sports, and they are doing so at younger ages.
As recently as 15 years ago, organized sports leagues for children under 10 were rare. Now kindergartners play T-ball and soccer, and even if they don't keep score, they use fields. Moreover, a 10-year-old who might have once played only Little League may change from his baseball pants to his soccer shorts in the minivan, as he races from one activity to the next.
The explosive popularity of soccer has certainly played a part in the field shortage. But other programs, including Little League, softball, lacrosse, football and field hockey, are also growing in enrollment. More girls are playing organized sports than ever before. Compounding the problem is that many sports -- traditionally thought of as either fall or spring sports -- are being played year-round. Now the seasons never stop, with baseball in the fall, soccer in the spring and indoor practices in the winter.
In addition, more adults -- particularly Hispanic immigrants who have brought their passion for soccer to this country -- are vying for field time.
As the squeeze continues, games and practices are pushed as early and as late as possible, and both children and their parents feel it. On a recent Saturday at 8 a.m. in Chappaqua, Matthew Witko, 12, was on a soccer field that was still damp from the morning dew. Twelve hours later, he was at the plate at an 8 p.m. baseball game across town, played under the lights.
''It's very tiring,'' Matthew said. ''I'm always running around. During soccer, our trainer was screaming at us, 'You guys have to wake up,' because it was so early in the morning. If I could sleep late on Saturday morning, I'd be joyous all week.''
Matthew's parents aren't thrilled with the sports schedule either. On Friday night, Janine Witko races home from work to get her daughter, Nicole, 8, to a soccer practice from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Her husband, Peter, meanwhile, needs to get Matthew to a 6 p.m. baseball practice. Saturday begins with Matthew's 8 a.m. soccer practice. Nicole then has American Youth Soccer Organization soccer practice from 9 to 10:30 a.m., and then a soccer game on Saturday afternoon. Matthew then has a baseball game Saturday night. And so the weekend juggernaut continues, capped off by Matthew's Sunday evening lacrosse matches.
''We don't see each other all weekend because between driving Nicole to soccer and dance, and driving Matt to soccer, baseball and lacrosse, it literally goes from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,'' Mrs. Witko said. ''Sometimes you can't even find where your team is, because there's a team on every field and they all look alike. And God forbid you lose the schedule, because every day you're somewhere different.''
Jody Green, of Ardsley, whose sons Eric, 14, and Zachary, 9, play baseball, also finds that the field crunch is interfering with family life.
''We're being assigned times that are normally dinner times or family times, and its just a pain in the neck,'' Ms. Green said. ''It's crazy with the scheduling and very inconvenient. Like 6 on Friday night. Or my 14-year-old has 5:30 p.m. Sunday Little League games. They used to not have sports on Sunday mornings because of religious schools, but now it's all the time, because they're trying to squeeze all the games in. It's gotten much worse.''
And those are parents with children on teams who managed to get playing fields. Nancy Nager, of Hastings-on-Hudson, has a seventh grader on a community baseball team that has no field for practice. The team played its first game without ever practicing, and it's been a tough season ever since.
''The school sports and the town Little Leagues are occupying the fields, and my son's team lost every game, which doesn't do a lot for their morale,'' Ms. Nager said. ''And they've lost them on fielding errors.''
For Roberta Goodman, an Irvington resident, the field crunch has meant more travel. Her two sons, Jesse Samberg, 14, and Aaron Samberg, 11, play soccer with the American Youth Soccer Organization, but because of lack of space, there have been only two home games this season. Weekends have been spent traveling as far as West Point and Sterling Forest. Like other districts in Westchester, Irvington plans more school construction, which will mean losing some fields.
Not only is the crunch hard on families, but it's also tough on fields. Turf requires rest, but with practices and games scheduled back to back, many recreation superintendents complain that their fields are being turned into dust bowls.
Joseph P. Davidson, a former New York City parks commissioner, now runs the parks department in White Plains, and he is starting to get an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu.
''I dealt with a lot of these issues in New York City -- the intensive use of fields,'' Mr. Davidson said. ''Now it's starting to mushroom out here. There's a significant crunch of playing fields all across the board, in small towns, in villages and in cities -- we're all experiencing increased numbers of youngsters, teenagers and adults who want to play ball. We're struggling to find and identify fields for them to play.''
In White Plains, more than 1,200 boys and girls are playing baseball and softball this spring, and almost 900 are playing soccer. There are also several adult soccer leagues, with more than 400 players.
Some towns, like Scarsdale, give baseball, softball and lacrosse leagues priority in the spring; while soccer, football and field hockey get the nod in the fall. Soccer teams in Scarsdale still get fields for matches in the spring, but not for practices. Teams scramble to find a free field wherever they can for practice.
Most municipalities also give priority to children over adults. This has been particularly hard on adult soccer leagues, many of which are made up of Hispanic immigrants. Both White Plains and Mount Kisco have immensely popular adult male soccer leagues, but players often find themselves all dressed up with no place to go.
Peter Maldonado is president of the Mount Kisco Soccer League, which has about 200 players, the vast majority of whom are Hispanic, and some of whom played on national championship teams in their native countries. Mr. Maldonado said it took several years for his league to secure even one field. Now the league holds several games on Sundays, though no formal practices. Mr. Maldonado has several teams on a waiting list that wish to join the league.
''A lot of people get upset because they think there's a lack of letting them participate, but it's not that,'' Mr. Maldonado said. ''It's just that there's no fields to schedule more games.''
The lack of fields has come as a shock to some immigrants, he added.
''In South America, it's a big activity,'' he said. ''I don't know if it's a custom here, but for us, you get home, you grab your shoes and soccer ball and you go and play.''
Vito J. Pinto, chairman of the County Legislature's Parks and Recreation Committee, said he would like to see the county develop a complex of lighted playing fields, which could be used for softball and baseball in the spring and soccer or football in the fall. Such a complex could also be used for tournaments, which is difficult now because fields are scattered.
Mr. Pinto said the county could develop fields on Glen Island, a public park in New Rochelle; at the southern end of the parking lot in Saxon Woods in Scarsdale, or on county-owned land at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla.
Paul J. Feiner, Greenburgh's town supervisor, had his epiphany about the issue when he was campaigning for Congress last fall. Instead of campaigning in his usual spots -- grocery stores and train stations -- a friend suggested he go to a soccer complex in Rockland County.
''I got there and I'd be campaigning on soccer fields from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and I'd meet like a thousand people, moms and dads and grandparents,'' Mr. Feiner said. ''Then I started talking to people in Greenburgh and they were all complaining about the lack of fields. I thought it was a shame because in Westchester we pride ourselves on having the best recreation, but then you go over the bridge and realize we don't.''
Mr. Feiner, who has been working with the county and with other municipal officials on the issue, has also been courting private industry to develop athletic fields which could, in turn, be leased back to municipalities. He said he believed that an initiative for more field space was ''a motherhood and apple pie issue,'' adding, ''I doubt any elected official will come out against more fields.''
But nothing is that easy in Westchester. One simple way to extend the use of fields -- installing lights -- is often met with neighborhood resistance. Not only do neighbors object to the lights themselves -- which are often mounted on 80-foot poles -- but also they worry that lighted fields will develop into late-night hangouts for rowdy teenagers.
And many residents want parks left as parks, and object to the traffic that athletic fields bring with them.
In Hastings, there was controversy over developing an athletic field on the Burke estate, a plan that was approved in a referendum last month. In Mamaroneck, there is debate over moving a war memorial to make room for a new soccer field.
As the county weighs the development of new fields, it is prepared for objections.
''You will always have a conflict between passive and active recreation,'' said Stanley G. Motley, the county parks and recreation commissioner. ''You've got people who want active areas for their children, and you've got people who want natural trails to hike on. We can't have everything in every community. We've got 42 parks and 16,000 acres, and we're trying to find a balance, while serving ages 2 to 82.''
But the thousands of children -- and hundreds of adults -- in their baseball and soccer cleats this spring will tell you that they are hoping that Westchester will build its own field of dreams.
''A 10-field complex would attract from literally 40 miles away,'' said Felix Ginorio, president of the White Plains Youth Soccer Club. ''Right now we have teams going up to Putnam County to the dome up there and going down to Manhattan to use the dock. If you build a complex, they will come.''