A boyhood hero who was first at third

It was the heart of baseball’s dog days, mid-August 1995, summertime in the bottom of the seventh, when broadcaster Bob Costas in his eulogy for New York Yankee great Mickey Mantle, gone at only 63, reminded us of something said by baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, way, way back in a time very different than today:

“Every boy builds a shrine to some baseball hero, and before that shrine, a candle always burns.”

When you’re a boy and you choose a baseball hero and light a candle, it pays to choose wisely. I did. My guy was Brooks Robinson.

As Mickey Mantle, a hero so grand and flawed he bordered on myth to boys of the 1950s, was leaving the game, Brooks Robinson was just settling in at third base for the Baltimore Orioles and I was settling in to boyhood. Brooks was from Arkansas and my baseball-loving granddaddy was from Louisiana. The Braves had just arrived in Atlanta from Milwaukee, but the Orioles were the closest established big-league team to my Carolina hometown and Brooks had been picking it for the O’s since I was born.

So Brooks Robinson was my guy.

And when he passed away three weeks ago in late September at 86, just days before the Orioles won their 100th game of the 2023 season, a lot of guys my age took a double knee and more than a moment of silence for the joy he gave us, for the dreams he inspired in us kids wearing Husky jeans and pedaling to the ballparks and the chain-link-fenced outfields of our youth.

Sure, he was good at baseball. Best defensive third baseman ever. The Human Vacuum Cleaner. Hit it to Brooks and you were out.

MVP in 1964. World Series MVP in 1970. An All-Star 18 times. A Gold Glover for 16 straight seasons. Two times a World Champion. For 23 seasons, a Baltimore Oriole.

Often in my head and for no reason, the tape will play and he’s robbing the Cincinnati Reds of extra bases, time and again, in the 1970 World Series on the black-and-white Sylvania in our little den in South Carolina. How in the world … ?

I’m not sure boys my age wanted to be Brooks Robinson like guys 10 years older than me wanted to be Mickey Mantle. The Mick was movie-star good-looking and played center field and was in New York City and slugged like a house afire. Brooks Robinson wore a goofy batting helmet with a too-short bill and was constantly in the middle of an electrical storm at third base in blue-collar Baltimore and had some great offensive seasons but was, for two decades, steady as the sun rising.

We didn’t really want to be him. But we sure wanted to be like him. He was dependable. Kind. Approachable. And really good at what he did. Unassuming. He was Mr. Oriole.

I have never asked for an autograph from a big-league player. I have autographed baseballs from Little Leaguers and their parents and some friends, and treasure those and the memories behind them. But I do have two Brooks Robinson autographed baseballs, each a gift. They are in the shrine I still have today. There’s my Brooks Robinson poster, a Boys’ Life magazine with him on the cover, a 5×7 framed head shot, a few action figures, a bobblehead Oriole … it just makes me feel good to know it’s there.

I never met him and never tried. Just knowing he was there was enough.

It hurt me that he died, but especially that he died on the eve of the postseason, Baltimore’s first October appearance in a couple of decades. I didn’t understand it. But the Orioles were swept last week, so maybe it’s best that he wasn’t here to see it.

But it sure is comforting to know he was here, and to know what he meant to so many, and to know that he’ll remain a cool and refreshing memory, just like the autumn wind at the end of a long season, when the leaves turn Baltimore Oriole orange and the weathered tan of a baseball glove.

Contact Teddy at teddy@latech.edu