Monday, October 10, 2016

The Vacuum Cleaner: 46 Years Ago This Week Brooks Robinson Treated the Nation to a Week of Great Plays

And it all started in the first game:

It was the bottom of the sixth inning of the first game of the 1970 World Series. The powerful Big Red Machine was tied with the Baltimore Orioles, 5-5. Lee May, the Cincinnati first baseman, took his place in the right-handed batter’s box. A strapping man known as a dead pull hitter, May had hit 73 home runs in the past two seasons. He focused intently on the pitcher, Jim Palmer, and paid no attention to the man standing roughly 100 feet to his left. That man, Baltimore third baseman Brooks Robinson, was studying him closely however. A thirty-three-year-old veteran with droopy shoulders, a doughy body and a rapidly receding hair line, Robinson did not look like a professional athlete when seen out of uniform; but looks could be deceiving.
Robinson held his hands close together in front of his chest and crouched, not unlike a cat before pouncing on a mouse. On his left hand he wore an ordinary-looking piece of leather that held the words “Rawlings Pro Model.” The glove was stained brown, stiff and cracked. The fur under the wrist strap was worn and frayed. This glove was not the only glove Robinson possessed. He had two other gloves in his locker that he used during pre-game practice to break in for future use. He also had some gold ones at home—he had been the winner of the past eleven Gold Gloves for American League third basemen. Brooks Robinson had been one of the best players in baseball over the previous decade and was appearing in his third World Series in five years but, in the days before daily television highlights, he was still somewhat underappreciated by casual fans outside Baltimore. That was about to change. As Palmer went into his long-armed windup, Robinson did not realize that the next pitch would be the start of a series of events over the next five days that would ensure that the unappealing piece of leather on his hand would wind up in the Baseball Hall of Fame a good ten years before its owner would.
            Palmer threw an off-speed pitch that hung a bit more than he would have liked. May kept his weight back, and then unleashed a vicious swing that met the ball squarely, sending it rocketing down the third base line. May, as all baseball players are taught on similarly hit balls, was thinking two bases as he left the batter’s box. The ball took two bounding hops off the artificial turf—1970 artificial turf that was little more than green carpet laid on concrete—and shot over third base like a golf ball skimming over an airport runway.
          From his original position ten feet off the line, on the back edge of the infield, Robinson took four quick steps and lunged to his right, reaching as far as possible with his gloved left hand. He back-handed the ball behind third base, spearing it just as the umpire on the edge of the outfield waved his hand indicating that it was a fair ball--a great snag that would hold May to a single. 

But Robinson wasn’t finished. He took one more step with his left foot and, with his back to the infield and his momentum carrying him well into foul ground, turned in midair and, throwing across his body, seemingly without looking, launched the ball in the general direction of the Ohio River.
Incredibly, the ball arrived to first base on one hop just before May did. The first base umpire jerked his closed fist into the air and fifty thousand fans watching the game in the stadium and millions more watching on television gasped at what they had just witnessed.

            This one play, which would come to be regarded as one of the top fielding plays in World Series history, was only a preview to the next four games. The Reds would be continually flummoxed in attempts to drive the ball through the left side of the Orioles’ infield, stopped by an endless series of unbelievable plays by Robinson.

By the end of the week, Brooks Robinson would be the most celebrated fielder in baseball history. He would be selected as the Most Valuable Player of the World Series, and the fact that he hit .429 with two home runs and six RBIs was almost superfluous.


It was more than just the most dominating performance of an entire World Series by a single player, it was transcendent; sublime. Even Reds fans, who hated what he did to their team, had to admire the sheer artistry of it all. 
            Amazingly, after the Series the Orioles players and coaches acted like they didn’t know what all the fuss was about. They said they had been watching the same thing for years and these weren’t even his best plays. And the thing about it was, they were telling the truth.          

            Brooks Robinson would go on to complete a 23-year major league baseball career, all with the Orioles, and would join his glove in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.
He would participate in eighteen All-Star games, accumulate a record sixteen consecutive Gold Gloves, set records for fielding percentage and be selected to the All-Century Team.
          As great as he was on the baseball field, however, the singular way in which Brooks Robinson conducted himself off the field would be as important as anything he did on it. He was universally acknowledged as baseball’s nice guy; a man friendly to writers, fans and opposing players; a man who always demonstrated class and regard for others. Forty years after he played his last game, Brooks Robinson remains an unquestioned icon in Baltimore. His genuine, humble demeanor, friendliness, and above-all, ability to remain a great role model, has somehow grown in significance over the years as fans are continually disappointed by sports figures who are rude, selfish and inaccessible. Brooks Robinson exhibits the exact opposite of all the traits that modern fans hate in their sports idols. And, no matter how much fame and adoration he achieved, he never lost the sense of who he was: just a regular guy who loved the game of baseball. It was his great character, rather than his athletic ability, that prompted a writer to remark, “Brooks Robinson never had a candy bar named after him. In Baltimore, people name their children after him.”

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