Tonight, as Joe Garagiola once noted, the guys on the bubble gum cards come alive.

The sixth annual National Old Timers Baseball Classic (7:30 p.m. at RFK Stadium, WMAL-630), for the record, will match 26 former American Leaguers against 27 former National Leaguers. But the game really will be more of nostalgia versus the march of time.

A crowd of 22,000 to 25,000 is expected to see the two clubs, which between them carry six Cy Young award winners, six rookie of the year winners, 13 no-hit pitchers and 10 MVPs.

Yesterday, former players gathered at the Washington Marriott to talk about old times and modern-day innovations. Some remembered what it was like to play in Washington's Griffith Stadium.

"That's the hottest place I ever played in," said Jim Perry, formerly of the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins. "I just told {former Orioles pitcher} Milt Pappas it's the only place I had to change my uniform before the game started. The new ballpark they have here {RFK} is fine, but the old stadium had a lot of memories."

Pappas said pitchers in Griffith Stadium could be more aggressive against right-handed hitters because of the long way down the left field line. "You weren't concerned to throw," he said. "When you were down, 3-1, in the count, you weren't really afraid to throw over the plate."

Former Washington Senators pitcher Jim Kaat said what impressed him about his first visit to Washington in 1959, "was Louis Armstrong performing between games of a doubleheader. They rode him around on a flatbed truck."

Discussion also centered around the so-called "shrinking strike zone" that is a complaint of contemporary pitchers and catchers. Some of the theories included the unwillingness of umpires to call inside strikes, players' willingness to fight if pitchers throw tight, and the "warning rule" designed to stop beanballs.

"They took the inside pitch away because of the warning rule," said Kaat. "If you knock one guy down that's a warning; the second time you're out of the game."

Some said the pitcher's right to the inside part of the plate should be protected. "I'm going to pitch inside if I have to take boxing instructions," said former St. Louis Browns pitcher Ned Garver.

But there were former umpires present also, and they disputed the notion that the strike zone has shrunk. "The major part of your shrinking strike zone comes from Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek, and radio announcers," former American League umpire Jerry Neudecker said.

"You're going to start calling balls and strikes from a television camera 300 feet away and say it's on the black?" asked former National League umpire Nick Colosi. "I couldn't see the black."

Former St. Louis Cardinal Enos Slaughter recalled his famous first-to-home score to win the 1946 World Series. "They tried to blame {Johhny} Pesky for that, but he couldn't see me," Slaughter said of Pesky's late throw home. "{Second baseman Bobby} Doerr or {third baseman Pinky} Higgins should have told him where I was."

Former umpire Jim Honochick told of the time a manager was ejected for using bad language, and appealed his fine and suspension to the league office. The umpire who ejected the manager gave his version of the dialogue, bad language and all.

"The manager jumped up and said, 'You {bleeping} liar, I never use that language,' " Honochick said.

Neudecker talked about ejecting former Orioles manager Earl Weaver "100 times" when both were in the minor leagues, not for profanity but "for his antics and for delaying the game." And former Milwaukee Brave Johnny Logan recalled his 1964 championship season with a Japanese baseball team from Osaka.

There was the time when Jim Perry's Twins came to Cleveland to face brother Gaylord's Indians. "I was sitting on the bench, and {Harmon} Killebrew was at the plate. And Gaylord threw him three spitters," Perry said. "Harmon didn't come close to any of them, but he didn't say anything; he just went back to the dugout.

"And he came up to me, and I said, 'Harmon, I didn't do anything,' and he said, 'Jim, you better learn that pitch; you could need it someday.' "

They talked about today's high salaries for .200 hitters, and they talked about the lack of communication on teams today. But most preferred looking at the positive side of their pastime.

"I was pretty damned fortunate to play the game I loved so much as a kid," Pappas said.