At old-timer get-together, playing ball is secondary

July 09, 1991|By Jerome Holtzman | Jerome Holtzman,Chicago Tribune

TORONTO -- As I was leaving the old-timers' dressing room, Vida Blue, the former Oakland pitching hero, intercepted me at the door. He had a request.

"When you write about it, just don't say it's a bunch of old guys playing in an old-timers game," Blue said. "We're just having fun and saying hello to each other. I'm here because I want to see a lot of my friends."

Later, Steve Garvey, expressed an identical view: "The game only lasts about 30 minutes. We're here to socialize."

It's hard for me to believe Vida Blue and Garvey and Bill Buckner and Ferguson Jenkins are eligible for old-timer classics. It hasn't been that long since they were active major-leaguers. Yet they were here yesterday to participate in a five-inning exhibition, which in recent years has become the preliminary attraction for the annual All-Star Game.

"It's sort of a mixed blessing," said Ben Walker, 31, the lead baseball writer for The Associated Press. "You don't like seeing your boyhood heroes grow old. But there is a positive aspect to it. Baseball is generational, from father to son. The baseball establishment is aware of that. Baseball doesn't try to bury the past."

Walker's remarks rekindled the memory of Philip K. Wrigley, the late Cubs owner who had a vigorous dislike for old-timers games. Wrigley, of course, understood the aging process but was opposed to these exhibitions because he believed the heroes should remain forever young.

The Cubs were the last of the major-league clubs to stage an old-timers game. When they did, if my memory is correct, Joe DiMaggio had appeared in more than 100 such exhibitions.

"I'm not the youngest," Garvey insisted. "Bill Buckner is a year or two younger." When a reporter asked his age, Garvey laughed and replied: "I just had my third 39th birthday."

Garvey has nothing but happy All-Star memories. He is the only player to win a starting position who wasn't on the ballot. He received more than a million write-in votes in 1974, when the game was in Pittsburgh and Yogi Berra was the National League manager.

"First two times I got hits," Garvey recalled. "In the fifth or sixth inning, Yogi told me was going to take me out. I told him, 'Yogi, you can't do that. You don't have any more first basemen.' "

Garvey was the only player on both sides to play the full game.

"I played in nine more games, 10 in all," he said. "And the NL won all of them. It's one record that you can't surpass."

A few feet away, Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher, a veteran of many old-timers games, was putting on his old Phillies uniform and talking about his brief tenure with the Cubs. This was in 1966, when Leo Durocher was the manager.

"Fergie was great," Roberts said, speaking of Jenkins, who two weeks hence will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. "But Kenny Holtzman was pretty good, too, and so was Bill Hands."

Enos Slaughter, the Hall of Fame outfielder, asked Roberts to autograph a ball.

"Knock 'em down, that's part of the game," Slaughter said as Roberts was signing. "Today, a pitcher comes in close and they yell like hell."

Slaughter seemed amused. "Robin," he said, "sometimes I wanted the pitchers to knock me down just to wake me up."

Roberts, who won 286 games during a brilliant career, was not a knockdown artist. Many insiders insist he would have won 40 or 50 more games if he hadn't had such an easygoing disposition.

"There were times I knocked some guys down," Roberts said. "When they would do it to us, I'd retaliate."

Bob Gibson, the onetime Cardinals star, merely laughed when ** asked about knockdown pitches. Gibby the Great knocked down more than his share of batters. "Only when it was necessary," he recalled.

Last year, Gibson was among ESPN's squad of baseball xTC broadcasters. For the five years before that, he was a sports announcer in St. Louis.

"This is my first year out, the first year I'm not working," Gibson said. "Thank God for the card shows."

Dick Allen, who won the American League's Most Valuable Player award in 1972, when he was with the White Sox, retired from baseball after the 1977 season, 14 years ago.

"Time flies," Allen acknowledged. "Time waits for no man. Or ballplayer."

Since he retired, Allen has been a racetracker, first as a horse owner and the last few years as a jockey agent. Asked how many jockeys he had in his stable, Allen said: "I don't have anybody now." Obviously, he is waiting for the phone to ring.

Which reminds me that Vida Blue asked if I ever hear from Charley Finley, his former boss with the Oakland A's.

"When he calls, tell him I was asking about him and I send my best regards," Blue said. "We had a lot fights, him and me. But he wasn't so bad. He was like everybody else. He showed a good and a bad side to himself."

Later, when the old-timers had lined up for a team picture, Carlton Fisk, the 43-year-old White Sox catcher, tried to break in, between Warren Spahn and Larry Doby.

"I belong in that picture," Fisk said in amusement, after he had been ejected.

I felt like telling Fisk he shouldn't hurry things. He'll be there soon enough.

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