A gloomy veil of mist hung over Oriole Park through the early innings of Tuesday night’s game between the Orioles and the Washington Nationals, as if even Mother Nature knew what a sad day it was in Baltimore.
Brooks Robinson, who never met a kid he didn’t like and almost never let a hard-hit ball get past him at third base, died Tuesday at the age of 86 after spending most of his life as the All-American sports hero who was so nice that he ended up in a Norman Rockwell painting.
It was not an act. He really was that humble guy from Little Rock who would become the greatest defensive third baseman of his generation … or any, if you ask anyone who ever used the word “Hon” to end a sentence. He also was a pretty fair hitter whose 2,848 hits, 818 extra-base hits, 268 home runs and 1357 RBIs made him a no-doubt Hall of Famer when he became eligible for induction at Cooperstown in 1983.
He was so good, in fact, that he won 16 straight Gold Gloves and made 15 consecutive All-Star appearances. He was so beloved that he was honored with not one, but two statues – one that stands among those of his fellow Hall of Famers behind left-center field in Oriole Park and another across the street.
He was a human highlight film before the recap-driven SportsCenter era, which only became apparent to a national audience when he dominated the 1970 World Series with both his bat and his glove. He batted .429 with two homers and six RBIs on the way to being named MVP but is remembered more for the acrobatic defensive plays that bedeviled the big-swinging Cincinnati Reds.
What you might not know about “Brooksie” is that during the sports memorabilia boom of the 1980s and ‘90s, he was warned by another baseball legend that he was giving away too many free signatures, which was reducing his value on the autograph show circuit. But he just kept on signing and it is the rare lifelong Orioles fan who doesn’t have a scuffed-up baseball or wrinkled program with his John Hancock scrawled across it.
I never saw Brooks play at Memorial Stadium, but myself and a group of friends chased him into the parking lot at Anaheim Stadium in the late 1960s to get his autograph and a chance talk to a real major league superstar. He clearly had someplace to go, but he signed every ball and stuck around a few more minutes chatting with a bunch of excited kids, a memory that has stuck with me to this day.
When I arrived in Baltimore in 1990, Brooks was working as the in-game analyst for the Home Team Sports network (HTS), and he was still the same guy who couldn’t say no to anyone.
But it wasn’t until my second spring training with the Orioles that it fully dawned on me how much he meant to Baltimore. I was with a fellow Baltimore Sun reporter behind the batting cage having a casual conversation with Brooks that was repeatedly interrupted by a man and his young son standing at the railing trying to get his attention.
This obviously was not a rare occurrence, because Robinson politely excused himself and turned toward the persistent fan.
“Excuse me, guys,’’ he said with a smile, “I’ve got to go meet another little Brooks.”
Sure enough, as soon as he got to the railing, he was introduced to another boy named after the best-loved baseball player in the history of Baltimore.