Give me an Old Timers Classic over the all-star game any day. They're as different as "Can I have an autograph?" and "Would you like my autograph."
When Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Catfish Hunter, Whitey Ford, Early Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Colavito and Jim Kaat take on Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Lou Brock, Jim Bunning, Billy Williams, Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal at RFK Stadium on Monday night, I want to go.
Even if it rains. Because I know they'll play if it's humanly possible. They want to play. They even want to take batting practice. They've got a year's worth of insults saved up for each other. Who knows how many cows have died to satisfy Boog Powell's appetite? How can a man who's been retired for 19 years look as good and play as well as Colavito? Maybe Brooks has found a better toupee. If Gaylord is really sure he's finally retired for good, maybe he'll spill a few spitball secrets. Imagine, a game where Dick Allen shows early, then wants to talk.
Old Timers locker rooms are so much fun that, sometimes, they're off bounds to the media. The codgers just can't bear to open their fraternity to outside eyes. Their sweet moments together in uniform again are just too precious to share.
In fact, the camaraderie feels so good that a whole circuit of old coots games has grown up around the country in the '80s -- a midsummer barnstorming tour for the middle-aged. The rosters are never sparse. However, the Washington game is the real McCoy -- the only oldster exhibition that stands on its own as an attraction, not a curiosity, and draws a big house year after year without benefit of a major league game.
Go to an all-star game and many a young hero is complaining about his three days of lost vacation or why the manager didn't name him as the starting pitcher. Those with convenient injuries who stay away are spoken of with envy. The bonus clauses in their contracts kick in, but they don't have to play the darn stupid game. Veterans quiz each other on how you can manage that trick without arousing suspicion. The all-star game is Jim Frey, down to the last out of a one-run game, calling for Fred Lynn to pinch-hit and finding out that he's already in his street clothes, ready to bolt. So, pitcher Dave Stieb pinch-hit and struck out to end the game.
We come to an old-timers game expecting little and always get a lovely surprise; we arrive at an all-star game with astronomical expectations and almost never get anything to remember.
Last summer at RFK, Brooks Robinson made a great diving stop going to his left, then scrambled to his knees, fired to second base to try to start a double play, then collapsed in laughter as his wild throw sailed into right field. Colavito's peg to the plate from right will remain The Throw of the Year in some memories. Nothing from any recent all-star game remains as vivid as the image from five years ago when Spahn chased Luke Appling around second base, swatting Ol' Aches and Pains with his glove, after the 75-year-old had hit a homer off him. When Appling got to the dugout, he faked a heart attack.
When the American League and National League all-stars call their union meeting in Oakland in two weeks, I'd just as soon pass up the frequent flier miles, thank you. Why? Because I think I covered the all-star game last year, but I honestly can't remember. For someone who tapes midsummer games between second-division teams just to wake up the next morning and watch, say, the debut of some obscure rookie pitcher, that's a giveaway as to just how brutally dull all-star games usually are. I'm trying to remember the '86 All-Star Game. Nope, sorry, it's completely gone.
Hold on, it's coming back to me now. I really was there. Dwight Gooden against Roger Clemens. Big hype, right? But it didn't pan out. Let's see, who won? Probably the National League, huh? Or was '86 an exception? Didn't Clemens pitch three perfect innings? Oh, yes, Houston, the world's largest nonexistent city. No wonder I couldn't remember anything. The home run hitting contest the day before wasn't bad. A shame it was better than the game.
The crux of the problem is that the exhibition format is perfect for old men, but horrible for the young. A player in his prime should care and try. A cameo appearance, a three-inning start, a trip from second base to home plate that doesn't include a hard slide because you might twist an ankle -- that's no work for an active batting champion or a 300-strikeout pitcher.
Basically, the all-star game is beneath the people who play in it. On Sunday, they're in a pennant race. On Thursday, it will resume. But on Tuesday night, they're supposed to be playful and showmanlike. No high spikes.
A goofy slapstick exhibition, however, is perfect for Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat. If they mess up a double play, they still have 1960. If they turn it, the place'll go nuts. If Johnny Pesky throws out Enos Slaughter at the plate on Monday night -- and they'll both be there -- it would become a tangy, tingling footnote for generations; did they stage it? Don't bet that Jim and Gaylord Perry won't pitch against each other. Yes, Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson will be teammates. And did you ever think you'd see Mike Epstein back in RFK?
It's as difficult for an Old Timers Classic to turn out wrong as it is for an all-star game to come out right. Our current all-stars, however, have one sure consolation. All they have to do is wait 20 or 30 years.