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Treasure old-timers like Irvin

Monte Irvin was king for a day.

He tossed out the first pitch, and the crowd cheered after he delivered a strike.

He met with friends. He watched baseball. And he reminisced about the past.

Monte Irvin Day at Tropicana Field on Sunday was everything the 84-year-old Homosassa resident could have hoped for.

During a well-produced pre-game ceremony, Irvin's accomplishments were announced over the loudspeaker. The Rays presented Irvin a painting that bears his likeness and a jersey autographed by Tampa Bay players.

"I'm highly honored and very appreciative," Irvin told the crowd.

The Hall of Famer, a Citrus County resident since 1984, left the field and was taken to the owner's suite.

Later, Irvin and his longtime pal, 92-year-old Venerable Evans, visited with me in the press box. Irvin's highlight was the pitch. Mine was the chat.

To me, Irvin is more than a baseball player _ he's a piece of history.

He lived in an exciting time. He faced segregation, fought overseas and played at the highest level against some of the biggest names. Irvin was 30 when, after years as a Negro Leagues star, he made his Major League debut.

They say Marines do more before 9 a.m. than most of us do all day. Well, Irvin did more before the age of 30 than most of us will do in a lifetime.

It's one thing to read about his accomplishments. It's another to sit down with the man and have him tell stories while staring you straight in the eye.

So, Monte, tell me about Satchel Paige.

"He could really throw it."

Who was the best pitcher of your era?

"Maybe Bob Feller. He could do it all."

Where exactly in New York was the Polo Grounds?

"Just on the other side of the river from Yankee Stadium."

Who was the best Negro Leaguer?

"Oscar Charleston."

Irvin and Evans have been friends for, oh, about 70 years. They grew up near each other in New Jersey and stayed in touch through the years.

Evans, I'm told, was a pretty fair player in his day. He says he was good enough to earn a tryout with the all-black Newark Eagles but not quite good enough to stick with the team.

Irvin and Evans spoke of players I had only read about. I knew the statistics, but they provided the images. Their memories, after all these years, were razor sharp.

I asked if they'd seen Babe Ruth play.

Evans looked at me kind of funny and said, "Oh, of course."

Evans told a story of how he was sitting in the outfield stands at Yankee Stadium on a day when the Sultan of Swat hit one of his gigantic homers.

The three of us went on for a good 20-30 minutes, and I'll tell you, I learned so much about the past my head was spinning.

Not only had they seen Ruth, but Ty Cobb, too. And Tris Speaker. And Lou Gehrig.

That's a little more impressive then telling somebody you've seen Jose Canseco, wouldn't you say?

Many of us sometimes take our elderly neighbors for granted. But they are a link to the past, and more of us should realize that. The best history lessons, after all, are taught by those who lived it.