Legends talk about state of baseball

Legends talk about state of baseball

NEW YORK -- More than 20 baseball greats -- legends, many of them -- from previous decades were gathered in a ballroom of a Manhattan hotel on Tuesday morning, providing an ample platform for their opinions on the state of the game in 2008.

The one recurring theme from all the Hall of Famers who spoke several hours in advance of the final All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium is that they all still watch the game and love it.

Of course, they all had their thoughts on what could make it better.

Both the positive and negative opinions were fascinating to listen to, particularly when you consider the magnitude of who they were coming from.

"I love watching the game today," said Al Kaline, the former Tigers right fielder extraordinaire. "I see so many great athletes out there and great players. They look like they enjoy the game. The game has only gotten better since I played. There's a lot of talent out there today. Different players from different countries. They bring different styles to the game. It's fun to watch. I really enjoy watching the game."

Kaline's main qualms with 21st century baseball centered on off-field issues.

"I would like to see the players maybe appreciate the game a little more and maybe handle themselves a little better off the field," said Kaline.

But he also appreciates the lack of privacy current players have to deal with on a daily basis.

"Again, when I played, there wasn't that much media attention," Kaline said. "Now, of course, everything we do is on a highlight. It's much tougher to play today as far as the media is concerned. We used to be able to go out and have a drink and go to dinner. Now, baseball is so big and there's so much fan support, you almost don't have a private life."

Ryne Sandberg, the great second baseman for the Cubs, thinks that baseball has it all covered for fans of today.

"I just like the popularity of the game. I think the stadiums are filled. There's good crowds," said Sandberg. "I like Interleague Play. I think that keeps it interesting, not only for the fans, but the players. It gives them a little break from playing the same team too many times. I like the Wild Card. I think the Octobers are outstanding.

"I think the game has really come a long way, probably, the last 10 years, and all for the better. I like all the games that on TV. Almost every day of the week, rather than wait for the Saturday game of the week like I did as a kid, you can always watch a ballgame. There are good young players coming up too. I think the talent is very good -- led with a lot of the young All-Stars that are here for the first time."

As the manager for the Class A Peoria Chiefs, Sandberg is also getting an up-close view of one of the recent controversy surrounding the potential danger of maple bats.

"I'd say get rid of all the bats that are flying all over the ballpark," Sandberg said. "I think that's kind of a shame. I'm managing an A-ball level with the Cubs and I've witnessed that first-hand at third base. I've ducked bats coming down, I've seen pitchers trying to field a bunt and there's the bat helicoptering over his head.

"I've seen routine groundballs to third base and the third baseman have to bail and not make the play because here comes the bat, head high. That's something that I think is a little out of the ordinary and also the danger factor that is there. I think it's just a matter of time before somebody could get hurt."

Though Orioles great Brooks Robinson played his last game 31 years ago, he still can't get enough of baseball.

"It's great now because you can click around and get all the games you want or you can watch ESPN at night," said Robinson, one of the finest fielding third basemen in history. "I enjoy doing that."

Robinson's biggest critique?

"Fundamentally, the game is not quite as good as it was before," he said. "Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel that way watching the game. Players [not] hitting cutoff men, doing certain things. The reason is, the emphasis is so much on offense."

Robinson didn't have to look far to find a supporter for his theory. Off in a corner sat the always-opinionated former manager Dick Williams, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame later this summer.

"I still go back to -- I want to move that guy from second to third," said Williams. "The bunt is a lost art. Maybe my style of play, though it was successful then, wouldn't be successful now. Time will tell. Baseball is still the greatest thing in the world."

Williams can't help but admit that today's athletes are superior to when he played and managed.

"I do enjoy it," Williams said. "There's some great, great players. Everything is better. They're bigger, they're stronger, they're richer. The conditions are better. The parks are better."

Phil Niekro, widely considered the best knuckleball pitcher ever, only wishes today's players would tough it out a little more.

"To me, and I may be wrong, but it seems like guys don't play hurt as much as we did back when I played," Niekro said. "Back in our era, you just didn't' get hurt. And when you did get hurt, you didn't tell anybody. There's so much money invested. If a player has the slightest thing, here come the agents and the players. We didn't have tendinitis back then. We just had sore arms. Got rubbed down, get some heat stuff on it and let me go."

An aspiring manager, Gary Carter is interested in the implementation of instant replay.

"They've been talking a lot about the instant replay and they might implement that and I think it would be beneficial to determine home runs," Carter said. "It's going to be interesting to see how they handle that because you don't want to take away from the immediate calls of umpires on the bases, or balls and strikes."

And speaking of the human element, that is probably what Dave Winfield loves most about baseball.

"You learn a lot of life lessons from baseball, you really do," said Winfield, one of the most imposing and impressive athletes to ever step on a ballfield. "Team work, being on time, no excuses, being in great physical condition, pushing yourself to the limits to see what you can be, overcoming obstacles, knowing that you're going to fail seven out of 10 times if you're really really good. But have the right attitude of handling that.

"There are life lessons of baseball -- more than any other sport. Baseball has a different pace, a different attitude and a different approach. That's what I like most about it. You show young people that if they embrace a lot of fundamentals of baseball, it's going to carry with them through life."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.