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ONLY THE GAME MARS OLD TIMERS CLASSIC

AFTER COVERING the National Old Timers Baseball Classic for the past three years, I'm starting to feel a bit old-timerish myself. At least that could be why I'm becoming more grouchy and opinionated.

One grouchy opinion I've come to hold is that the worst part of old-timers weekend is the actual playing of the "game" itself.

Let's face it. Watching men in their second half-centuries playing hardball is not exactly the most entertaining thing in the world.

We all get older, slower and fatter, even men who once were top athletes. But it is not a lot of fun to display it to everybody.

Watching some of these guys run after baseballs sometimes makes you cringe. It's like watching Grandpa dance the tarantella at the wedding. You're glad he's having fun, but you hold your breath and cross your fingers that he doesn't hurt himself.

Of course, these aren't ordinary guys. If you just wanted to see old men play ball, you could save the $15 and go to the Rotary Club picnic. These are stars. Ballplayers with box office appeal. Hall of Famers. Supermen.

At least that's what I thought two years and three games ago. Now, I'm not so sure. For instance, there were 10 Hall of Famers advertised as appearing at Monday night's game at Pilot Field.

Hank Aaron didn't show (for the second year in a row). Luke Appling didn't play. Early Wynn threw one pitch. Sandy Koufax faced one batter. Enos Slaughter grounded out in the first inning and left the game immediately. Willie Stargell bounced back to the pitcher.

Warren Spahn faced three hitters. Brooks Robinson played three innings at third base, getting his only putout when the runner fell down in front of him. Bob Feller couldn't get the ball over the plate and when he finally did, Lou Brock hit it for a triple that might have been a routine fly ball had the American League not employed an outfield that was best at doing (to steal the description of WEBR's Dave Kerner) "cigar store Indian imitations."

As those with press passes know, the best part of old-timers weekend is the schmoosing. Hanging around the hotel, dugout, batting cage, and dressing rooms meeting some of the players you've always heard about.

Except for black and white television years ago, I have never seen Robinson dance his ballet at third base. But I can report with certainty that he is a friendly, affable man who seems to truly enjoy meeting the many people who want to meet him.

I couldn't tell you anything about what Feller's fastball looked like when he could throw it through the barn door, but I do know the man is a bit hard of hearing and conservative in his political opinions.

And I know that when I die and go to sportswriters' heaven, my eternity will be filled with assignments to interview people like Appling and Slaughter, vivacious, loquacious and bodacious old players who are chock full of stories and love to tell them.

Getting to meet the players is not an easy task for those without media credentials. But a step in the right direction was made this year when the game's organizers added a pregame photo session in the outfield at which fans could take pictures, scarf some autographs (which were technically illegal under the much-ignored rules of the session) and chat with some of the players. A good time seemed to be had by most (except the kid who got ejected for trying to steal Feller's glove) and everyone got to see some of their favorites up close and personal.

This reporter will shed no tears if the game is moved elsewhere. It's the kind of traveling circus that looks fresher in a new town, anyway.

But regardless of location, the organizers should think some more about enlarging the meet-the-fan type sessions and maybe shortening the ball game.

Fans want to see their heroes. But they don't really want to see them looking bad.

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