Hall of Famers speak at 'Voices of the Game'

Hall of Famers speak at 'Voices of the Game'

Hall of Famers speak at 'Voices of the Game'
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Once they retire, they'll tell you what they really have to say.

Six of baseball's all-time great players held court Saturday at Doubleday Field as part of the Hall of Fame's Voices of the Game event, and they took turns dishing on their baseball opinions and their impressions of how the game has changed since their respective retirements.

And in this case, all quarters were represented. Bert Blyleven and Phil Niekro were on hand to speak for pitchers, while Tony Perez and Eddie Murray stood in for slugging first basemen. The other two speakers -- Ozzie Smith (shortstop) and Carlton Fisk (catcher) -- were standouts at premium defensive positions.

Fisk and Murray playfully sparred at times during the event, and the Hall of Famers playfully chided Niekro about the lack of velocity on his fastball. But they're all unmistakably close, and Murray told the assembled audience that he knows one of the panel members since before maturity.

"That man over there at the end grew up with my parents since we were 9 or 10 years old," said Murray of Smith, his high school teammate in Southern California. "We've been together that long. We graduated the same year. We missed by one year for coming here together. And I blame him for it. But this is an awesome little event here."

Murray, at a more analytical moment, said that his father was quiet but a man of action, a description that many might mistake for a self-description. The reticent first baseman had many other kernels of wisdom to unleash Saturday, and he said at one point that one league taught him more than the other.

"I think the American League really taught me how to hit," he said. "They would throw you a curveball, then another curveball. And a curveball, and the fastball was the trick. Over there [in the NL], it was the fastball and the fastball, and the curveball was the trick. I learned to think [backwards.]"

And if that education between the lines was one thing, Perez could tell of a different experience. The former slugger, who now serves as a special assistant to the general manager for the Marlins, recalled what it meant to him to move to the United States from Cuba at a young age. Perez didn't speak any English when he signed his first pro deal in 1960, and he was on his own in a strange land.

"My manager, in Spring Training, asked me if I was ready to play and I only knew two words: yes or no," said Perez, remembering his humble beginnings. "I said 'Yes,' but I wasn't ready and I looked real bad. But I played and they wanted to ship me back to Cuba. I wasn't good, I weighed 160 pounds and I had nothing to say. And that was hard. But I made it. I started playing and they liked what I did, especially with the bat. But my glove wasn't that good and I had no position.

"I signed as a shortstop -- like Ozzie -- but I never played shortstop. They got me out of there quick and I had to start playing second base, because I was skinny and I had a good bat. And from there I had to do whatever they wanted me to do. They found me a position -- third base and then first base -- and to be here today, to be here at the Hall of Fame, is something I never dreamed about."

He may not have dreamed it, but he certainly accomplished it, a trait he shared with all of his decorated peers. Blyleven, visiting Cooperstown for the first time since his induction last July, said he was thrilled to be back at the Hall of Fame and thankful that he didn't have to make another speech.

"It got to a point where I know I gave up 96 home runs in two years," he said of the end of his historic career. "When my family went to the ballgame, they were sitting out in left field. They brought their gloves. That's not a good thing, but I wanted to be able to thank them for that opportunity. It's just a matter of being able to thank everybody that gave me the opportunity to play a kid's game."

Three of the players -- Fisk, Murray and Perez -- agreed that pitching has become the dominant element in the game, but they disagreed on how that happened. Fisk and Murray both agreed that umpiring has been a major factor, but Perez said that expansion has also been a culprit.

"Pitching is dominating now," said Perez. "We've got a lot of guys who are position players who aren't ready to hit in the big leagues. We're going to see more no-hitters and perfect games from now, because that's the way baseball is now. We have a problem over there in Miami, but I can't blame [the hitting] because my son is the hitting coach. We're having trouble with hitting and scoring runs right now. That's why we've fallen down from first place two weeks ago to almost last place. That's the way it's going now, but baseball hasn't changed. I still enjoy it, and I'm watching games every night."

Fisk, elaborating on a greater point, said that the game doesn't need to change the rules as much as it needs to embrace the ones that are already on the books. The longtime catcher said that umpires don't call the strike zone the way the rulebook does, and that's had far-reaching implications.

"You can talk about contracts [or] arbitration, and you can talk about performance-enhancing drugs," he said. "They all had an impact on the game, but I think the reason there's a pitch count -- which I think is ludicrous -- is that the strike zone is perverted. ... I get in more trouble challenging umpires and the strike zone later in my career than ever. People talk about how slow the game is, and it is slower, because there are so many specialty positions on the pitching staff. You've got a starter, and a quality start is [six] innings and three runs. We used to send those guys to Double-A."

Murray agreed, and he said the high fastball used to be a pitch that a hitter looked forward to seeing. Now, he knows not to swing because he also knows that the umpire won't call it a strike.

Eventually -- as it always does in Niekro's company -- the conversation turned to the knuckleball, the enigmatic pitch he used to win 318 games. Niekro spoke of his father and of his late brother, Joe Niekro, and he even paid tribute to R.A. Dickey, the game's top practitioner of a lost art.

Niekro said he looks forward to seeing Dickey's line in the box score, but when asked why the knuckleball is so effective, he seemed as flustered as the hitters he faced.

"I have no idea," he said to laughter. "They've taken the test on that and I don't know why the knuckleball does what it does. All I know is if I can get the thing over the plate, I can pitch in the big leagues. And I got it over the plate in the big leagues, so I pitched. But I have no idea why that thing does what it does. It never does the same thing twice. It's too complicated to even talk about for me."

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