This isn’t a baseball story, not really anyway.
It’s a people story, a love story, a tragic story.
And then, just when you want to scream from the rooftops about how life is so damn unfair, this becomes a story of heart-warming hope, with an all-time Orioles’ great providing some of that – at first unbeknownst to him and, ultimately, because of his simple act of kindness.
This isn’t my story. I’m telling it now because it’s the holiday season, and because it’s good to read something uplifting around this time of year.
It has been told much better by the person who has lived it, my good friend and proxy little sister, Leslie Gray Streeter, the pop culture columnist at The Palm Beach Post.
I’ve known Leslie since we were young reporters at The York (Pa.) Dispatch in the mid-1990s. We bonded because we were both Baltimorons – our favorite pastime was ripping each other when the occasional Balmer accent would tumble out of our mouths. (“Did you just say, ‘am-buew-lance?’ Really?”)
Leslie and I grew up a few miles apart in Baltimore; she went to City and I went to Calvert Hall. We didn’t know each other, but later realized we had several mutual acquaintances. We also had plenty in common, including an obsession with the Orioles as children. I wanted to play third base at Memorial Stadium; she wanted to marry Ken Singleton. Neither dream worked out.
Leslie didn’t end up marrying anyone until her late 30s, when she reconnected with a City classmate, Scott Zervitz, who also was living in Florida. I had spent much of my 20s and 30s disparaging every guy that Leslie dated. Because, to be frank, most were losers. And, as her pseudo-big-brother, I felt it was my role to point that out as often as possible.
Scott seemed different, though. We got along from the beginning, probably because he was a sports fanatic, and was obsessed with the Orioles and Ravens. As a kid, he won a raffle to be a bat-boy-for-a-day at Memorial Stadium and got cursed out by Earl Weaver in the home dugout. When he told me that story, complete with an imitation of Weaver’s snarky rasp and colorful language, it was hard not to like the guy.
Leslie and Scott were married in February 2010. She had found her soulmate. We were all so happy. They wanted children, but hadn’t been able to conceive when Leslie received a phone call from a relative in September 2013. A baby boy had been born in Baltimore to a member of her extended family. He may be put up for adoption. Was she interested?
Leslie and Scott decided this was their sign from above. Within six months, the couple was fostering the little boy in Florida and navigating the crazy rollercoaster of adoption. From afar, it seemed like a gut-wrenching process; I couldn’t imagine what they were going through.
It crept along. The occasional milestone inching them forward.
One day, Leslie called me to let me know what they were going to name the little boy.
“Yes,” she said. “Brooks Robinson Streeter-Zervitz.”
“Let me get this straight. This little African-American boy, born in Baltimore, soon to be adopted by an African-American woman and a white Jewish man in Florida will be named after a 70-something, white ballplayer from Little Rock, Arkansas?”
“Yep,” she chuckled.
“Perfect,” I said.
Truth is, Leslie always was on board with naming the boy after an Oriole – Scott’s wishes – but she wanted to go with Ripken. After all, Cal Ripken Jr., was a little more her and Scott’s generation of ballplayer. But Scott was unrelenting.
He wanted his boy named Brooks, after not just arguably the greatest player in Orioles history, but the undisputed greatest person to ever wear the uniform. The ultimate class act. Leslie bought in. Once the child was officially adopted, he would be legally renamed Brooks.
In March 2015, as the pending adoption painfully crawled along in the court system, I met Scott, Leslie and soon-to-be Brooks in Orlando before an Orioles-Braves exhibition game. We hung out at a coffee shop. Little Brooks sat on my lap. Scott and I talked Orioles. Leslie fed her son. It was awesome to see her in the role of mom with this beautiful family in the making.
Later that day, while I was working in the press box, Brooks attended his first baseball game. At one point, he was screaming and crying, as 18-month-olds like to do, and Scott tried to stop the temper tantrum. “Brooks Robinson,” he said sternly. Suddenly, everyone around the family quieted. For a moment, all of the baseball fans in the section thought there had been a sighting of the legend. Nope, just a little boy named Brooks Robinson being cranky. Carry on.
There should have been so many more moments like that. The three of them experiencing more baseball games, experiencing more Disneyworld, experiencing more life, experiencing more love.
But, unfortunately, maddeningly, that’s not always the way life works.
Four months later, in July, 2015, I received an early morning phone call from my best friend. His voice was distant. He was choked up.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, man,” he said between deep breaths. “Leslie’s Scott is dead. Died overnight.”
It was cardiac arrest at age 44. More than five years after marrying Leslie, and about one year before this son he loved so much could legally become his, Scott was gone. He was buried in his Brooks Robinson, throwback O’s jersey.
I mourned for Scott, though I didn’t really know him that well. And I mourned deeply for Leslie, who had gone from wife and foster mom to widow and single mom in an eyeblink.
How she has survived and flourished this last year-plus is a testament to her strength and her faith. And testament to the commitment she has for this child that should have been hers and Scott’s much earlier, but was still floating in red-tape ether.
Somehow, Leslie expertly sidestepped life’s blows. And, this July, she was in a courtroom in Towson with family and friends for the official adoption of Brooks Robinson Streeter-Zervitz. When the name was said officially for the first time, there wasn’t a dry eye in the judge’s chambers. It was one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever encountered.
This story could stop here. It’d certainly be enough for one piece. It’d certainly be enough for that feel-good vibe about humanity we all crave at this time of year.
But there’s a post script to this. Because Leslie’s a writer.
She’s at her best when she puts things into words. She wanted the original Brooks Robinson to know her son’s tale. So, she wrote the Hall-of-Famer a good, old-fashioned letter. Unlike many fans, she wanted nothing from the 79-year-old Robinson, who still lives in Baltimore County. She put that in the letter. She meant it. She’s been through hell, but she’s never asked for any special treatment throughout this ordeal. And she didn’t that day.
All she wanted was for Robinson to know how much his integrity and his acceptance of people of different races and cultures had shaped her husband’s life and now would shape her new son’s life. That’s the connective beauty and strength of sports, of baseball in particular.
A few weeks later, Leslie received an envelope in the mail at her home in Florida. Inside was a color photo of Robinson, kneeling in the summer sun at Memorial Stadium so many moons ago.
An inscription was written in blue Sharpie.
“Brooks,” it read, “I’m honored you have my name. Hope to say hello one day soon.”
It was signed, “Brooks Robinson, Hall of Fame 1983.”