No. 60: Brooks Robinson
About 25 years after we moved from Cleveland, I came back to our old house. It was way smaller than I remembered. That’s obvious. Everyone says that about where they grew up. It did seem extreme in this case, though. The whole house looks roughly the size of the cereal boxes at Costco. I walked around it and looked at the backyard. That too was was smaller than I remembered too, and I expected that too.
Only … no. Not really. Maybe I expected the backyard to look small. But I did not expect it to look THAT small. I mean if our backyard was a parking lot, it would have a “Compact Cars Only” sign. It was a half-bath of a backyard, a mass-market paperback of a backyard, a travel-size toothpaste box of a backyard. As I gazed over the chain link fence — which in my memory had been absurdly high but now came up barely to my waist — I could barely even calculate how we could have played baseball games back there. I’m not even sure how you could get more than three people into that backyard. Bunts would soar over the fence.
But we did play baseball games back there, countless baseball games, and in those games I was one of two people: Duane Kuiper or Brooks Robinson. I was Kuiper because he was the second baseman of the Cleveland Indians, my Cleveland Indians, and so he was living the greatest life I could imagine.
I was Brooks Robinson because my father loved him.
My parents came to America just a couple years before I was born, and though he will disagree I think baseball has always been a bit of a mystery to my father. He had grown up playing soccer and was good enough to play on semi-professional teams. He taught me how to trap a soccer ball before he taught me how to get under a pop-up. My suspicion is that if I had grown up now instead of then, I would have grown up playing soccer non-stop, day and night. This was no option in the 1970s in Cleveland. There were no youth soccer teams, at least none we knew about. I can never remember, even once, seeing anyone kicking a soccer ball except during gym class at school.
An American boy played baseball and so my father — who, more than anything, wanted for us to be American — learned the game.
How? I’ve asked him. He learned by watching baseball on television, by listening to it on the radio, by talking about it with friends at the factory where he worked. He picked it up by doing it, by playing catch, by hitting ground balls, by playing in company softball games. I remember seeing him in one of those softball games, and through the blurriness of memory I see him choking up high on the bat and moving his feet in the box and chopping DOWN on the ball. He was still fast then and he beat out the throw every time.
The rhythms of the game have never quite clicked with my father. He will watch a baseball game now and again to pass the time or to strike up conversation, but the sport doesn’t live inside him the way soccer and boxing and tennis do. He likes it but does not love it. But he sure did love Brooks Robinson.
Brooksie made sense to my father. I think back to that backyard, and the thousand games of catch we had, and how many times he made some sort of Brooksie reference.
“Diving for the ball isn’t the hard part. Think about how fast Brooks Robinson gets up and throws the ball.”
“Think about how Brooks Robinson throws. He doesn’t throw the ball hard. He throws it and the first baseman doesn’t have to move his glove.”
“Get in front of the ball and stay with it. Brooks Robinson will let bad hops hit him in the chest and then he picks it up and throws out the runner.”
Day after day, in that tiny backyard, my father would roll me ground balls and shout out lessons inspired by Brooks Robinson. Play the ball, don’t let it play you. Charge those slow ones. Move your feet. If I made a nice pickup he would shout, “Just like the Human Vacuum Cleaner!” If I let a ball go through, he would remind me that Brooks Robinson made errors too but never let them affect him on the next play.
Thinking back on it, I’m not sure how my father could have known so much about Brooks Robinson. I mean, we didn’t live in Baltimore. I can’t imagine that my father saw Brooks Robinson play live more than once or twice, if that.
But, I think there was something about Brooks Robinson that lives inside my Dad. This is what I mean when I say Robinson made sense to my father. I think all of us have a baseball player we would be like if we could multiply our talents and commitment exponentially. I feel sure that my father — had he grown up in Little Rock, Arkansas with a natural talent for the game and a father who taught him how to catch a red rubber ball before he learned how to walk — would have grown up to be Brooks Robinson.
* * *
Are great defensive players, in general, nice people? Bill James asked that question once and it really is striking how many great defenders were also notably good people. There’s Brooks Robinson, of course, one of the nicest men to ever play baseball. But there’s also Ozzie Smith and Honus Wagner, Bill Mazeroski and Frank White, Paul Blair and Andre Dawson, Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente, Buck O’Neil and Jim Kaat and Duane Kuiper — all of them renowned for their generosity. You can probably come up with dozens more.
Of course, you don’t HAVE to be a great defensive player to be nice. Jim Thome might the be the nicest player I know, and he couldn’t play defense at all. Mike Sweeney too. Boog Powell. Raul Ibanez. Willie McCovey. Stan Musial wasn’t a great defender. And there were some great defenders — Barry Bonds among them — who were not exactly cuddly. We are generalizing to make a point.
And Bill’s point, I think, is that there is something fundamentally unselfish about being a great defender. A child finds out about baseball. A new game. Interesting. What’s the first thing he or she wants to do? Get in the batter’s box. Hit the baseball. What’s the first dream? Hit the home run. Round the bases. Hear the crowd. Ted Williams would practice his swing between pitches while standing in the outfield. The Giambi brothers would fight to get into the batter’s box.
But there are some drawn to the field, where there is minimal credit and few cheers but where certain kinds of people can express themselves and help the team. There’s a story Brooks Robinson often tells that I love. He says that when he was young, he had a paper route with about 150 customers. Every day he would throw newspapers on those customer’s porches — that, he says, is how he developed the strength and accuracy of his arm. One of the customers on his route was Bill Dickey, the great Yankees catcher.
“I threw the paper just a little bit harder when I threw it to his house,” Robinson says.
That’s a beautiful story, isn’t it? Think of the image: A boy, throwing newspapers, day after day, imagining they are baseballs, imagining that he is in the major leagues and each successful throw is like the last out of the World Series. It’s such a short step of imagination to see that boy growing up into the greatest defensive third baseman who ever lived — maybe even the greatest defender at any position.
There’s something else about defense, the thing I think that spoke to my father. Defense is every day. Brooks Robinson was a startlingly sporadic offensive player. He had the misfortune of playing in the worst offensive era since they outlawed the spitter — his neutralized numbers are much better than his actual numbers — but even so his offense peaked and slumped. In 1964, he hit .317, slugged .521, banged 28 homers and won the MVP award. One year earlier, he hit ..251, slugged .365 and banged 11 homers.
He hit .290 or better four times. He hit .250 or worse four times. He hit 20-plus homers six times, but that meant he hit 19 homers or fewer eleven times. He could not run well, he did not walk much, he hit into a lot of double plays. Then again, he did hit .303 with some power in his six postseason series. He did the best he could.
But as a defender he came to be the best in the world, day after day, game after game, year after year. He was a great defender at 20. He was a great defender at 38. This is true by reputation (Robinson won the Gold Glove 15 consecutive years) but it’s also true by the numbers. Defensive WAR was not invented until many years after Robinson stopped playing, but it shows Robinson as a great defender every single year from 1959 to 1975. Defensive WAR can be cruelly unsentimental. It shows Clemente as a sporadic fielder, for instance, and can make no sense of Dave Winfield’s seven Gold Gloves or Derek Jeter’s five. But Defensive WAR rates Brooks Robinson exactly the way the eyes do.
And my guess at the reason is that Brooks Robinson was a great defender on every Tuesday in Cleveland on that rock infield; he was a great defender every warm Sunday day game at Fenway Park with that huge wall looming behind him; he was a great defender every Thursday in Minnesota, even when they played on a field only recently de-iced; he was a great defender every September Monday at Yankee Stadium in the heat of pennant races with those tough New Yorkers booing him, and he was a great defender every Friday night in Baltimore when there was a full house, and he was viewed as a deity, and fathers brought their sons and daughters just to see him dive.
Hitting comes and goes, even for the best hitters. You get your three or four or five at-bats and hope to make the most of them. Some days you do. Some days you don’t. There’s always the next at-bat. But great defense comes any moment, and it means being constantly ready, being absorbed in the game on every pitch, making the running play in the hole when your team is down 8-1 in the eighth, and diving on the dirt for a backhand stop in September when your body feels like a pulsing bruise, and leaving those errors behind (Robinson made 263 of them) and starting the double play that gets your pitcher out of the jam. Every day. That was Brooks Robinson.
That is my father. I never remember my Dad calling in sick. I never remember him leaving the house late. The factory was 100 degrees, and the knitting machines clanged and rattled like mechanical headaches, and his boss was a jerk, and there was no realistic hope of a promotion (promotion to what?) or substantial raise. Dad smoked Kents by the pack, and he ate baloney sandwiches on rye, and he found small ways to express himself in his work, and he came home exhausted and covered in oil and dust. I didn’t understand. I was a kid. He would collapse on the couch, and I would jump on him and say, “Come on, Dad, come on, let’s go, come on, let’s play catch,” and he would look up, and his eyes begged “Just let me sleep for 10 minutes,” but I couldn’t read eyes, and he would slowly, very slowly, pull himself up, groaning with each inch, and then he would go have a glass of seltzer, and he would put on a baseball cap two sizes too small and get the cheap plastic glove, the one that looked like it had come with a plastic bat and wiffle ball, and he would walk back with me to that tiny back yard. And he would roll me ground balls until the sun set. He would not speak at first. Then he would.
“That’s it! That’s how Brooks Robinson does it!”
One day, not too long ago, I talked with Brooks Robinson. He was every bit as wonderful as you would expect. He speaks with an Arkansas twang. My father speaks with a muddled Eastern European accent. Funny, Brooks Robinson still sounds like Dad.