It will be reunion of sorts. Only most of the people won't know each other.

Fans, young and old and in between. Players, old and older.

The Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic will return for the fourth year Monday night at 8 at RFK Stadium, with retired players from the American League facing a group from the National League. Promoters expect a crowd of about 30,000 for the five-inning game.

For many fans, the game will afford a chance to relive a slice of their past, when all that mattered was whether their ball club won and their hero succeeded, and not whether the mortgage was paid on time and the kids' teeth were straight. For the 61 old timers (three of whom will coach), it will be a chance to renew friendships and swap sea tales, as one put it.

Each player will be paid $1,000 and more importantly, many of them said, Borden, Inc., makers of Cracker Jack, will donate $50,000 to the Association of Professional Ball Players of America (APBPA), an organization that aids retired players who have fallen on hard times.

Old timers games have a way of inviting comparisons. Everyone has an opinion on who was better or which era had the best players. That chatter is as much a part of the game as balls and strikes.

"I think anybody who can play the game and is an outstanding player can play in any era," said Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, who will play Monday. "If there is any sport where you can do that, it is baseball. In basketball and football, the little guy has trouble nowadays. Baseball's the one sport where size does not make a difference. If you're outstanding, you can play anytime."

Warren Spahn, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews and Robinson all were outstanding in their time, and all are members of the Hall of Fame. They all will be at RFK.

Except for the designated hitter, the rules and fundamentals of the game have not changed drastically since they played, but the group shares a feeling that the quality of the play has lessened since they were between the lines. They point to expansion in the majors and contraction in the minors.

"I think there aren't quite as many good players because of expansion," said Kaline, who broadcasts games for the Detroit Tigers. "A lot of players are rushed to the major leagues and they don't know enough about the game. Consequently, the performance suffers."

"I feel the players of yesterday were a little better, but I'm sure that feeling echoes back to Ty Cobb's time," said Spahn, a left-hander who won 363 National League games between 1942 and 1965, 356 of them for Boston/Milwaukee Braves. "I think expansion has hurt and the elimination of a lot of minor league teams has hurt.

"When we came up against a .250 hitter, everybody said, 'Make sure you don't walk him.' Now, a guy who hits .210 or .220 can be a millionaire. It's an indication of the talent available. I see mistakes at the major league level that used to be ironed out in the minor leagues. Speed guns and all that aside, I don't think pitchers throw as hard as they used to. Everybody's going to sinkers and sliders. Things like the split-fingered fast ball are just new names for old pitches."

Mathews, Spahn's teammate for 12 years with the Braves, hit 512 home runs, which ties him with Ernie Banks for 11th on the career list.

"It's still a bat and a ball," Mathews said. "It has changed to a certain degree, though. I don't think as much (hitting) production is needed to be successful. I don't think a guy hitting 25 home runs is a great home run hitter. Today, if a guy hits 25 home runs, he gets a $100,000 raise. I just don't see the production.

"When we talked about a 20-game winner, that's what you had to be to be a star. Now, if he wins 14 or 15, he's a star," said Mathews, a third baseman nearly all of his career. "They're getting more money for doing less. When I played (1952-67), if you didn't produce, you took a cut, but not today. I can't remember anybody taking a cut today.

"I don't understand why they're talking about a strike. What the hell do they want out of life? It can't get much better than they have it now. Talk about a strike is ridiculous. I was very content and I was treated very nicely. But, if somebody can make a million dollars, more power to him."

If Mathews sounds as though he regrets not being born 20 or 25 years later, he won't admit it. While the extra money might have been nice, he said he wouldn't trade places. The modern player might have better cash flow, but also fewer laughs.

"No, I have no regrets," he said. "I don't worry about a thing."

Killebrew, a former Senator and Twin, left Idaho as a 17-year-old to enter the big leagues. He, too, doesn't regret his experiences.

"They were great years when I played, the '50s and '60s," said Killebrew, who is fifth on the career home run list with 573. "If you're talking money-wise, then it's a little different story, but even that is all relative. There is a lot more emphasis now on the money side and the long-term contracts. I don't know, but it appeared to me that we had more fun."

"Yeah, I'd like to have made more money," Spahn said, "but I'd also like to be 21 and have hair. I'm sure the guys before us said the same thing."

"Heck," Robinson said, "I made a lot more money than a Joe DiMaggio or a Ted Williams. I was happy to play when I did and I was happy to leave when I did. I don't think players today have as much fun as we did."

Kaline put it in perspective, and, in effect, pointed out why these old timers think the contribution to the retired players' fund is important.

"Players years ago were closer knit, had more friendships," he said. "Today, everything is too business oriented. Now, players think about their investments or what they're doing over the winter break. Back when I was playing, most guys couldn't afford to take the winter off. You had to go home and get a job to help pay the bills.

"My largest contract with the Tigers was for $109,000," said Kaline, who played 22 years, had 399 homers and hit .297. "It was very good for me, and I was very well taken care of. I try not to think about (what he would make now). I feel the owners know what they're doing -- or should. I guess I would think otherwise if I hadn't been able to find a good job. But then I've been one of the fortunate."

One of Monday night's players has been more fortunate since he left the game. Emil Verban had one of the less glorious careers, playing second base for four teams from 1944 to 1950, during which time he hit one home run and batted .272.

Like Arnie with his Army, Verban will be supported to the hilt, if only by a few, at Monday's game.

"We're just delighted that the Old Timers people thought enough of Emil to include him," said Bruce Ladd, who is known as the historian of the Emil Verban Memorial Society, so named even though Verban is very much alive. The society comprises fans of the Chicago Cubs, for whom Verban played.

"We're going to have 125 or more of the members there, somewhere along the first base line," Ladd said. "We gave him a banner (8 feet by 4 feet) at our biennial lunch and we told him to bring it. We'll fly it when he gets up to bat."

Verban, who lives in Lincoln, Ill., 170 miles south of Chicago, wasn't always sure he liked the idea of the society, but he has come around. "It's been one of the highlights of my life," he said. "I'm relishing it a lot.

"You've got to smell the roses while you can."