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Cooperstown roundtable
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07/29/2002 4:27 pm ET 
Cooperstown roundtable
Helton, Thomas join Ozzie to talk baseball
By Ian Browne / MLB.com

Ozzie Smith waves to the crowd as Hall of Famer Bob Feller looks on before the annual Hall of Fame Game. (John Dunn/AP)
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- When you watch the superstars, it's only natural to marvel at their greatness. Sometimes this makes you forget that those who fill up the highlight reels are every bit the avid fans as the spectators themselves.

A roundtable discussion Monday morning between freshly minted Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and current stars Todd Helton and Frank Thomas served as a telling reminder of how much the great ones enjoy talking about their sport.

The entertaining chat -- which touched on a variety of subjects -- will be aired on ESPN2 Monday night at 7 ET.

ESPN's Brian Kenney ran the chat between the Hall of Famer, and two potential future Hall of Famers. It took place outdoors, just 10 or 15 feet in front of the stage on which Smith had his formal induction fewer than 23 hours earlier.

Helton's Rockies were taking on Thomas' White Sox Monday afternoon in the annual Hall of Fame Game at Doubleday Field.

The journey to Cooperstown was a great change of pace for Thomas, who is having a rough season individually, and has seen his White Sox fall behind in the race and trade Ray Durham, Kenny Lofton and Sandy Alomar Jr. within the last week.

"To see the legends, see what the game is all about, it's great," said the Big Hurt, a two-time MVP winner. "Going to the Hall, looking at the greatness that goes into it, it gives you a spark. You can't let it slip away."

Thomas at least allows himself to fantasize of what it would be like to come to Cooperstown for something other than a casual visit.

However, Helton, the Rockies' sweet-swinging first baseman, doesn't let his mind wander that far. It would interfere with the focus he deems necessary to be one of the game's great hitters.

"No," said Helton, indicating he's never spent a second thinking about what it would be like to be a Hall of Famer. "I can't even think about a whole season. I just think about what I'm going to do today. If I start thinking long term, I'll be terrible."

The conversation then shifted to the position of shortstop, which was only fitting considering perhaps the best shortstop of them all was front and center.

There are more star shortstops now than at any previous era in baseball. With Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada, there are guys who not only play great defense but contribute big power numbers to their teams.

"It's just part of the cycle," said Smith. "It comes and it goes. Most people don't realize that in the 1930s and '40s there were slugging shortstops. You have a great core of guys who can put offense and defense together."

    Todd Helton   /   1B
Height: 6'2"
Weight: 204
Bats/Throws: L/L

More info:
Player page
Stats
Splits
Hit chart
Rockies site
Helton made it known what the priority would be for him if he had the choice.

"I think defense is necessary. You have to have somebody at short who can just flat pick it," Helton said. "It makes your defense that much stronger."

Though Helton plays a position that almost requires offensive excellence, he said he takes more pride in his 2001 Gold Glove than his 2000 batting title.

"It was something I had to work so hard for. Defense, if you work hard on it, you can improve on it. Anyone who has any kind of athletic ability can get better on defense."

Thomas doesn't have much experience with defense these days. He is primarily a DH as the White Sox have another star first baseman in Paul Konerko. Thomas said that DHing is a challenge in its own right.

    Frank Thomas   /   DH
Height: 6'5"
Weight: 275
Bats/Throws: R/R

More info:
Player page
Stats
Hit chart
White Sox site
"It's a hard position," said Thomas. "It's like pinch-hitting four or five times a night. You have to find a way to stay in the flow and stay loose. At home, it's not as tough, I can hit in the cage during the game. This year has been tough on me in general after missing a year (to injury)."

Thomas and Helton play in an era in which the home run is center stage. Power had nothing to do with Smith's induction into Cooperstown. The three men talked about the true value of the longball, or lack thereof.

"I think (the homer) is overvalued," said Helton. "If you can drive in runs, no matter how you do it, that's the name of the game for me."

"The key RBI is what the game is all about," said Thomas, who has topped 100 RBIs nine times.

"Give me the guy who can get that key two-out basehit," said Smith. "The guy you want up with two outs in Game 7 of the World Series."

And Smith made it clear that no, he was not swinging for the fences when he hit the most famous homer of his career to win Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS against the Dodgers.

"I wasn't thinking home run in '85. I realized how to get the ball down the line. The pitcher supplied the power. All I supplied was the technique."

Next up was the subject of the All-Star Game. In Smith's generation, it was a fierce competition. It has become more of a show these days. This year's game ending in an unfortunate tie has made the way the Midsummer Classic should be played a hot topic.

"I can remember my first All-Star Game sitting there before the game, and Pete Rose talking about how bad we were going to beat them," said Smith. "I was sitting there as a wild eyed little kid admiring the intensity these guys played the game with. Sure it's an exhibition. But the atmosphere has changed. It's just a real casual atmosphere.

"When I played, it was to prove the NL was the best. Now guys are just happy to be a part of it. You try and get so many people in, it becomes a tough job for the managers. The risk you run is what happened this year. You have pitchers who only throw to one hitter. They need to go two or three innings, that was always the program before. We were just talking about this year's game. I don't think the starters played long enough and it put Bud (Selig) in a sticky situation. He did the only thing he could do."

Helton and Thomas agreed that being selected to the team was a bigger thrill than actually playing, and that the managers don't need to be so hung up on getting everyone in the games.

"If I go to an All-Star Game and don't play, I'm fine with that," Helton said. "It's just the experience of going there and talking to guys."

"I feel the same as Todd," said Thomas. "It's show time now. I think they need to stretch (the starting players) out. Guys realize what an honor it is just to be there. It was kind of embarrassing for the game what happened this year."

Speaking of sensitive subjects, the talk shifted on how important it is to avoid another work stoppage.

"I'm not taking sides," said Smith. "I've been a player and been through stoppages. I don't think people realize that as players we are fans too. I'm not a labor negotiator. You hire people to do that. Sometimes we get caught up in things that are not important. These (fans) here are what is important.

"I think Ozzie said it best," said Helton, "as baseball players, we are fans, and we don't want to see the fans get hurt. We want to finish the season."

"We definitely know we have issues and they need to be worked out," said Thomas. "(To have a work stoppage) just brings fans further and further away from the game and we don't need it. The fans are what this game is all about. I hope things can be worked out."

Ian Browne, a reporter for MLB.com, can be reached at Ian.Browne@mlb.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.



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