Last night in RFK Stadium, on a makeshift field ankle-deep in water, with players who couldn't always count on themselves to run to first base in 10 seconds, baseball had its real All-Star Game of 1982.
Forget the fiasco in Montreal last week. That was a drab yawn compared to the Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic, which delighted a crowd of nearly 30,000 that divided its time between laughing, cheering and, perhaps, crying.
Forget that a torrential hour-long thunderstorm before the game left the field a splashing joke. Forget that major league baseball did not see fit to sanction or support this charity game for indigent old-timers, annoying even so placid a soul as Joe DiMaggio.
Forget that Washington police, who break their backs to police Redskin games, couldn't manage to provide even a cop a block in the RFK environs to prevent a major traffic jam. Forget that the game started more than an hour late.
No one in RFK Stadium on this charming evening will remember any of those things.
They'll remember that perhaps the most celebrated group of baseball players ever gathered in one spot had a joyous and funny five-inning romp that blended nostaglia and pathos in a gentle mix in which the sweet outweighed the bitter.
They'll remember classy Stan Musial standing in a pouring rain to do a live 6 o'clock news TV promotion to tell fans that the old guys were still going to try to play in the slop. Come on out for a good cause, said the Man; a little rain won't stop us.
They'll remember 75-year-old Luke Appling--"Old Aches and Pains"--leading off the game for the American League with a home run into the short-porch left field stands. As Appling ran the bases, his gopher ball victim--Warren Spahn--chased him, slapping Appling with his glove. As Appling reached the dugout, he feigned a heart attack and fell into his mates' arms.
They'll remember portly Hank Aaron as he:
Hit a bases-loaded liner off the fence in the left field, just in front of the thousands of fans who had been standing and begging him to deposit a grand slam in their laps.
Almost got conked on the noggin by Brooks Robinson's routine fly that clanked off his glove and imbedded itself in the soggy earth at his feet.
Then, in the same inning, made a running, stumbling, shoe-string, ice-cream-cone grab of a hard liner to center that he turned into a double play as the crowd went crazy at his marvelously apt atonement.
From the hardest line drive, like Willie McCovey's 430-foot batting practice homer off the right field mezzanine, down to the clumsiest pratfall by a fat grandfather, this game showed nearly half a century of baseball's greatest players in a gentle and flattering light.
Not necessarily flattering to their talents or their waistlines, but flattering to their easy grace and undiminished sense of joy. As DiMaggio said, after an hour's locker room kibbitzing during the rain, "You never saw so many guys having a great time. You know, a lot of us only knew each other as competitors. Now you get to know these guys as people. Everybody was in little groups, and guys would just wander from group to group, telling stories and catching up on old times."
Any night that can make DiMaggio a chatterbox must have a lot going for it. This one does, even if Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the rest of baseball's hierarchy have acted as though the whole show were tainted.
"No, we haven't gotten any support from the commissioner's office," admits the game's managing director, Dick Cecil, who spent 15 months in organizing. "It's important that players and fans like this game and appreciate it for what it is. But it's not that important what the game's leadership thinks of it . . . The game belongs to the fans and this game is for the fans."
Many involved with this game believe that baseball's reluctance is twofold: it didn't think of the game and didn't control it, and Kuhn looks askance at the Cracker Jack's policy of actually paying old-timers to play.
"We went first-class," said Cecil. "The 'stipend' wasn't large and it was equal to every player."
Best estimates are that the Classic costs about $750,000. The only way it can exist, even with an excellent top-dollar crowd like last night's, is by underwriting the game and accounting for its loss as an excellent investment in national promotion.
DiMaggio is typical of many players here who believe that baseball has been remiss in not being considerably more helpful to the Association of Professional Ball Players of America--a far-from-well-endowed charity to help old ballplayers.
"The players of our eras didn't make the money that they make today," said DiMaggio, an official of the association. "You wouldn't believe it, but in recent years, baseball has actually given the association less money--down from $50,000 to $30,000. And costs are going way up. This game will bring the association more money--$50,000 guaranteed--than baseball provides in a year."
Despite its problems, this game was exactly what Cecil called it before it began, "a great success."
When it looked as if the whole thing might be washed out for a night, the old-timers went out of their way to assure organizers they would stay an extra day to make sure fans weren't disappointed.
Perhaps the rains just heightened good spirits. Ernie Banks was constantly kidded with rejoinders like, "Great night for a game, isn't it Ernie?"
"Let's just play one today," answered Banks.
For some, this was no doubt a bitter night. Anyone who watched major league games in RFK for more than a decade had to grit his teeth at the sight of a "baseball" field with no infield dirt (just dirt patches around the bases) and left field "bleachers"--built for football--that put the foul pole about 250 feet away.
In a sense, Washington was offered a pathetic, geriatric version of the sport it fostered for 70 years; this night could be seen as a sort of sop to a city whose franchise hopes are so far on the back burner that nobody knows if they're even still on the stove.
In that sense, perhaps the skies were crying last night with reason.
However, for the peaceful crowd that milled on the field long after this game, decked out in big league jerseys and hats of every team--except a Washington club--this was an evening of sweet pleasures.
That is, until the morning, when, their heads filled with names like Aaron, Spahn, Musial, Kaline and DiMaggio, they'll remember what they're missing.