RIP, Brooksie

In the summer of 1977, I was pretty sure I was going to play third base for The Baltimore Orioles. I was fifteen years old at the time, playing for a little league team called The Hitmen, and having a stellar season – both in the field and at the plate. Word was, Brooks Robinson would retire that year, and I fantasized every day about what it would be like to replace the greatest third baseman to ever play the game.

One day, during a real nail-biter against the Special K’s, a big kid named Josh Schaffer came to the plate. The bases were loaded with no outs in the bottom of the seventh. We were up by one, but we only played seven innings in little league, so the stakes were about as high as they could possibly be. I was crouched about five feet off the bag, when Josh smacked a screaming line drive down the third base line. I leapt toward the right, fully extended in what the personal trainers now call the “plank position,” and snagged the ball in mid-air before landing face first on third base, with the runner ten feet off the bag. Instant double play! But I wasn’t done. I immediately sprung to my feet, like the legendary third baseman I was destined to become, and threw hard to second as the runner dove back, but not in time. Triple play!!!

The crowd went wild, and my teammates – delirious with joy – high-fived me and clapped me on the back. But it was the coach who made my puny little chest swell with pride. “What a great play! You’re a natural, Mike! From now on, I think we’ll call you Mike “Rowebinson!”
It was the greatest moment of my sporting life.

As you probably know by now, Brooks Robinson died yesterday. He was 86. Baseball fans in Kansas City, Boston, and Philadelphia might disagree, but Brooks really was the greatest third baseman to ever play the game. Lots of people will write today about his performance in the 1970 World Series, which I watched with my grandmother, who kissed the screen of our little black and white TV whenever “Brooksie” came to the plate. Others will recall the two triple plays he turned in 1973 – truly the stuff of baseball legend, but not exactly shocking, given his sixteen golden gloves. Sixteen! No other third baseman even came close.

I learned of his death early this morning, from an email that arrived from my friend Mike Malone, which I opened at 37,000 feet. The subject line said “Brooks Robinson, RIP,” and the message read, “I always wanted to be him. Had his model Louisville Slugger Bat, and Spaulding glove. Neither worked quite as well as his did…”

Me too, Mike.

Me too.

Obviously, I was wrong about my future in baseball. Playing third base taught me that just because you love something, doesn’t mean you can’t suck at it. Just a week after I turned that triple play, I made three errors in one inning, and cost us the game when an easy ground ball dribbled between my legs and rolled into the outfield. After that, my friends stopped calling me “Rowebinson,” but that one moment of greatness stood for five years as my finest moment in front of an audience, and would be still, if I hadn’t landed the leading role in a training film for a big energy company called Crown Central Petroleum.

The goal of this particular training film was to educate employees as to the proper way to conduct themselves in an office environment. We were filming at Crown’s corporate headquarters in Baltimore, and I was nervous. My job was to play the part of a bad employee, whose attitude and interactions illustrated how NOT to behave while working for a reputable company. It was my first paid gig in front of a camera, but that’s not the reason I was nervous. I was nervous because the official spokesman for Crown Central Petroleum was there that day, bookending each of my scenes with a few words of wisdom. And the official spokesman of Crown Central Petroleum, was Brooks Robinson.

There’s no way I can articulate the thrill of meeting my favorite baseball player of all time, or the strangeness of seeing him in a shirt that didn’t have #5 emblazoned upon it. I approached the great man with all the confidence I could muster.

“Hi, Mr. Robinson. My name’s Mike Rowe. Looks like we’ll be working together today.” I held out my hand and we shook.
“Call me Brooks,” he said. “Everybody else does.”

“Actually, my grandmother calls you Brooksie,” I said. “She also kisses the screen when you’re on it.”
I was babbling but Brooks nodded politely. “Well, that’s very flattering. Please give her my regards.”

“I will,” I said. “Her name is Thelma and she’s happily married, but honestly, I’m not sure how she’d behave if she were standing where I’m standing right now.”
I realized we were still shaking hands, and quickly let go. I had a million questions, but I didn’t want to bore him, or ask him anything he’d been asked before by every other fan in Baltimore. So, I blurted out, “Speaking of names, my teammates used to call me “Rowebinson.”

“Is that so?”

“Yep. Five years ago, I was playing third base when a big kid named Josh Schaffer hit a line drive down the third base line with the bases loaded.”
“Let me guess,” said Brooks. “You snagged it in mid-air, right?”

“Right!” I said.
“Triple play, right?”
“Yep! I’ll never forget it!”

Now I was babbling and bragging at the same time – unforgivable I know, but I couldn’t help myself. I knew for a fact that Brooks had turned three triple plays in his career, and I was hoping to bond with the great man by sharing the only thing we had a common – a moment of greatness on the hot corner! But Brooks Robinson didn’t tell me about any of the triple plays he’d turned under similar circumstances. Instead, he told me about the ones he’d triggered.

“It’s a heck of a thing, Mike, to hit into a triple play. You’re up there at the plate with no outs and at least two men on. Your team is excited. The crowd is excited. But then, with one swing, you become the ultimate rally killer.”

Brooks paused and then said, I’ll tell you something else. You might never forget that day, but neither will Josh Schaffer. Take it from a guy who has hit into more triple plays that anybody in major league baseball.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. “You?”

The greatest third baseman of all time nodded and smiled ruefully. “Four,” he said. “And I remember them all like they were yesterday.”

I was too stunned to respond. For all my interest in the game, and Brooks Robinson in particular, I had no idea he was the “greatest rally killer of all time”. All I remembered, were the impossible catches on a hot corner, the impossible throws to first base from foul territory, and the clutch hits that won so many big games.

I had other questions, but happily for all concerned, the director called me away to rehearse the scene we were about to shoot, and Brooks turned his attention to another fan who wanted to share another memory, leaving me to wonder about the things we choose to recall, and the things we can never forget.

RIP, Brooksie.
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