The 53 former major leaguers scheduled to play in Monday night's sixth annual National Old Timers Baseball Classic at RFK Stadium probably come to Washington for 53 varying reasons. But a commonly heard word is reunion.

For former major leaguers who can't keep in touch, old-timers games can serve as a large get-together and remember-when, held in front of 25,000 or so fans.

"It's really the first one that got the other games started," former Baltimore Oriole Brooks Robinson said. His reason for playing in Washington is twofold: he is a friend of Dick Cecil, the organizer of the game, and Washington is within commuting distance of Baltimore.

"I drive down, I play in the game and I drive back," he said.

Robinson used to play in many old-timers games, but one in Sarasota convinced him he should cut back on his schedule. "I ended up diving for a ball and I landed on my knee, and I thought, 'This is stupid,' " said Robinson, an Orioles broadcaster, who now limits his play to Washington, Baltimore and Texas.

"To me, it's been the most fun {of all the old-timers games}. Plus, they have the best players," Robinson said.

"Playing in Washington makes it unique. I think, like everybody else, that Washington should have a major league team," broadcaster and former catcher Joe Garagiola said.

Some come because they remember donning the uniform of the old home team. "The Washington game is much more significant . . . because I cut my eyeteeth playing in Washington, and I have a lot of fond memories," said Mike Epstein, a first baseman for the Senators from 1967 to 1971, when they traded him to Oakland during the final season before their move to Texas.

The RFK game is part of a new-old look at old-timers games, which have been around longer than many players who will participate. "Old-timers games are not a new concept," said Cecil, whose Eagle Sports organization underwrites the game's costs. "When I was a vice president with the Braves, it was one of our biggest promotions."

But Cecil, in developing the Washington game six years ago, wanted to take a different approach than the usual three-inning preliminary to a major league game. In Washington, "This game is the event. That's why the players come, that's why CBS comes and televises it. It's the only freestanding game," he said.

"Truthfully, they invited me last year and I accepted. I enjoy seeing guys I haven't seen in awhile," said former Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca, who participates in "two or three" old-timers games a year. "I played in Shea, and I play in Texas basically because my son-in-law is {Rangers manager} Bobby Valentine and they asked me."

"The competition really is secondary. It's an opportunity to relive some memories. Baseball is built on nostalgia and numbers and memories," said Jim Gallant, director of broadcast operations for WMAL-AM, which will be the flagship for a 65-station nationwide network, including Hawaii and the West Coast, carrying the RFK game. "Obviously their skills are diminished, but on radio it's not really important."

The success of old-timers games is not limited to Washington. Major league baseball, in conjunction with The Equitable insurance company, is in its second season of sponsoring old-timers games in each of the 26 major league cities. The Orioles' old-timers game will be played Aug. 16.

The Equitable's series last year drew 621 former players to the games and this year's will top that, according to Eleanor Hamill, director of corporate public relations.

Last season, according to Rob Ingraham of Capital Sports, a sports agency that works on behalf of The Equitable, 800,000 fans came out on game days. "In many of the ballparks, we estimated increases anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 fans because of the game," Ingraham said.

Part of the proceeds from The Equitable series -- $10,000 from each of the games, totaling $260,000 last year -- go to the Baseball Alumni Team (BAT) Fund, money set aside for ex-players in financial difficulties. Distributions from the BAT Fund are approved by a board of former players, including Bob Gibson, Rusty Staub and Garagiola. Branca is the board's president.

Washington's old-timers game makes "a guaranteed donation" to the American Professional Baseball Players Association (APBPA), Cecil said, though an appearance fee in excess of travel costs is paid to the players who participate. The APBPA fund also is designed to help out ex-players.

Gallant said Monday's game should not be viewed as a test of area support for baseball -- "We never looked at this thing as a measure of Washington's interest in baseball. This is memory, not competition."

Some ex-players see it differently. Garagiola played in a game in Houston recently in which former Astro J.R. Richard pitched. "He was throwing close to 90 miles an hour," Garagiola said, plus dropping curves and sliders across the plate.

"When you start throwing curves and sliders in old-timer games, something's wrong. I don't think old-timer games should be an audition for a comeback," Garagiola said.

"The thing that I appreciate about Washington is that there's a lot of guys that I never met," Robinson said. "Even when . . . I was playing, very rarely did I see the players socially . . . I live five blocks from Mark Belanger and I see him once a year."