Rocky Colavito is 52 years old, and he retired from baseball three years before the Washington Senators died in 1971. So when a fly ball headed to fairly deep right field last night, the boisterous, sweaty crowd in RFK Stadium didn't expect too much.
They certainly didn't expect the low zooming rocket throw that Colavito unleashed to home plate -- on one perfect waist-high bounce to hold a runner at third base. It would have been a grade A major league throw on June 23, 1886, or any night in the century since.
Suddenly, the crowd was on its feet in an ovation. Not a sympathy cheer for a middle-aged man in the National Old Timers Classic, but a genuine roar of admiration for a remarkable skill that had been kept alive. Now, a generation that has only heard the words, "Nobody ever had a stronger arm than Colavito," never will doubt it again. Lee Lacy hasn't made a throw that powerful in his life.
The next inning, Colavito stepped to bat and showed how he hit those 374 big-league home runs. His blast looked as if it had a chance to reach the upper-deck mezzanine when it left the bat; it ended up deep in the lower stands. Trigonometrists can debate whether it was a 400-footer. Call it Rocky V.
"Holy smoke," said Joe DiMaggio, rolling his eyes like a little kid. "High fastball. He really killed it."
For an hour last evening, a bunch of old coots hooked up in a 2-1 game that was, for the most part, so well played that men who should have known better started taking it pretty seriously. Dick Groat, 55 years old and retired 20 years, broke up a potential inning-ending double play with a roll block slide that landed Bobby Doerr on his keester in a cloud of dust. So what if Doerr is 68 and retired back in 1951? It meant a run in a close ball game.
"I don't know what that shortstop was thinking of, throwing the ball to second base underhand. He almost got Doerr killed," said DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper may be 71, but for a second he wasn't kidding. The sort of men who played at RFK last night know how to play the game only one way -- the right way. Sixteen are in the Hall of Fame, and they played like it, ancient or not.
In its previous four visits here, the Classic has been an amusing, light-hearted, sometimes slapstick affair with less than no intensity. Last night, something weird and rather lovely happened. Somehow, the pride kicked in. Fielders were on their toes.
Cookie Rojas, a child of 47, snagged a smash on the grass in right field, did a 360-degree pirouette and threw out the batter; folks, this man has a tummy. Tony Oliva made a running shoestring catch.
And Brooks Robinson almost made one for his highlight film -- his old highlight film. Hard smash, dive to his left, snag the ball at full length, get to the knees, throw to second for the force. Unfortunately, there is more of Robinson now than there once was, so, as he tried to throw, gravity pulled him earthward and the peg ended up in right field. Oh, well, if he could still make that play, he'd still be an Oriole.
Hitting got contagious, too. In the third inning, the American League started hitting home runs into that short left field porch and couldn't stop. Bill Freehan had two homers in the inning. "The totals for that inning," intoned the PA system. "Fourteen runs, 11 hits, one error and one man left . . . We think."
The crowd of 25,730 got so enthusiastic that it started to do the wave. Not well, thank heaven. Still, anthropologists of the future should be alerted that Luke Appling, 79, did play in the era of the wave. As for Appling, who put this game on the map nationally with his homer at age 75 in 1982, Old Aches and Pains played hurt. He had a stroke last October ("seventh game of the World Series") and still requires about 30 seconds to sign an autograph. But he hit the ball all the way to the left fielder.
"Aw, the stroke has just slowed me down answerin' all my mail," said Appling, with tobacco juice dribbling down the front of his uniform, as always. "Got a room 'bout half full. People pay more attention to me for this game in Washington than they did for my whole 21 year career."
If this evening brought forth a special effort, a joy in showmanship, that isn't always present at other old-timers games then it was partly, as Robinson, says, "Because here, we're the main show, not the opening act" for a big league game.
For this one night, the old guys can lay it on thick with no millionaire kids around to snicker at them. Lou Brock can jump around in mid-at-bat and swing right-handed against Whitey Ford. ElRoy Face can throw three pitches, claim a sore arm and exit laughing. Bob Friend can drill Freehan with a pitch after Colavito's homer (Freehan later hit his two homers).
"The real thrill in this game is to finish it," said Brock. Then the greatest of base stealers grew more serious. "When we were kids, we all started out as baseball fans," he said. "We only became players later. If you can't become a fan again after you retire, then you go through a lot of mental anguish and become bitter."
This evening, some of the best baseball players who ever lived performed with a delight and a sense of foolishness that proved they were, once again, just young-hearted fans.
However, for a few silly wonderful seconds, they were bona fide ballplayers again, too. Good enough to make the great DiMaggio say, "Holy smoke."