The crack of the bat. The aroma of bratwurst. The sight of grown men spitting on the ground repeatedly.

And the agony of a young child who's just poured root beer down his front.Yes, it's baseball season again, and every dad is America is trying to figure out how he can take the kids to the ballpark and actually see the game. Or at least a couple of pitches.

We're easy, us dads. We're so eager for a wife-sanctioned outing at the local minor-league stadium that we're willing to pack up the kids, diaper bag and all, with the insane expectation that they'll stay in one place for three hours without bothering Daddy. They can't even do that when they're asleep!

We whine if we're left alone with the kids - and that big conspicuous purse - for two minutes at the mall, but we'll gladly saddle ourselves with a car full of trouble magnets for an afternoon at the ol' ball yard. Yes, we tell our wives, we did know the game starts at nap time. Is that a problem?

Everything's all right when you're headed out for a day of double plays, hit-and-runs and split-fingered fastballs. If, that is, you know how to manage your team. If your gameplan isn't carefully orchestrated, you could be in for hours of spills and chills, hit-and-cries, sticky fingers and shirt-front food art.

Let's quickly review the essentials to any dad/kids ballpark outing:

- Equipment - Always insist that each child bring a ball glove. Not because you think a kid that can't keep a peeled apple off the floor will catch a 90 mph foul tip, but because an oversized mitt is a very effective damage-control device. Ever try to pull your sister's hair with a first baseman's glove?

- Drinks - Not a good idea. Do a little math: Four large sodas (even "small" is large at the ballpark) times four kids equals one dad who'll be too busy with latrine detail to know the score or even the inning. I let my kids visit the water fountain, but only late in the game.

(If you really want to maximize your enjoyment, cut off all liquids about noon the day before. Your kids will become dehydrated and faint in your lap, but that way they'll be less likely to interrupt the big ninth-inning rally.)

- Food - Sugar and ice are nice. For every buck-and-a-half you plunk down on a snow cone, you're guaranteed 21/2 innings of undisturbed viewing. Just watch for leaks and don't expect those blue lips to turn back to normal for a while.

Peanuts are difficult to open, and that's the beauty of 'em. Where there's a kid hard at work opening shells, there's a dad watching the game. Popcorn can last for several innings. But each time a kernel is crunched, a radio signal is transmitted to cranial implants embedded in the nearest Pepsi vendor.

Hot dogs are cheap, but avoid the ketchup. And whatever you do, don't let them catch a whiff of the sun-baked sauerkraut or you'll have a real disaster on your hands. You did bring a change of clothes for each kid, didn't you?

Crackerjacks are a tossup. Sure, the kids get a prize, but do you want to be in the laundry room all night picking toffee-coated pellets off their clothes?

Nachos sound like a good idea until your 2-year-old decides to sample the little green chilies. If this happens, borrow a hose from the grounds crew.

- Mascots - In most every other arena of life, a guy in a costume is bad news. But at the ballpark, mascots are saviors. Even if there isn't a mascot, convince your kids there is one. They'll spend six innings scanning the stadium from their seats until they exhaust themselves and take that over-due nap.

If they start to catch on, just pick the loudest heavy-set guy you can find, preferably a construction worker who's had a few too many malt beverages, and tell 'em he's the mascot. They'll be occupied for hours.

- Souvenirs - Following the rule that, "If a kid can hit somebody with something, he will," it's best to avoid miniature bats. Don't buy a stuffed mascot without imagining what it would look like if you dipped it in syrup and drove your car over it. That's what it's going to look like when it goes home.

- Postgame - Before leaving, be sure to check the special events calendar and talk up the next appearance of Sport, the Chicken or even that Melvin Noodlehead guy or whatever his name is. You know he's lame, but the kids don't, and they'll beg Mom for weeks to let Dad take them back to the ballpark.

And speaking of Mom, make sure you emphasize the four hours of peace and quiet you've introduced to her world. Then start planning for doubleheaders.