B. Robinson: epitome of grace on and off field

April 16, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

Decency, refinement, consideration and an old world word -- dignity -- in behalf of others sets Brooks Robinson apart from the rest of the parade. Athletes or what have you. A gentleman in the total context, never given to the human weaknesses of envy or selfishness.

If a disgruntled teammate, acting more as an adolescent than an adult, argued about an official scorer's ruling, in or out of the clubhouse, whether it was a dropped ball or an errant throw, he would defuse the controversy by saying, `Look, just give me the error,' even if he didn't have it coming.

Once, coming out of a restaurant in Waverly, umpire Ed Hurley turned to offer the most praiseworthy of all evaluations regarding Robinson: "He plays third base like he came down from a higher league." What a tribute. Say it again "He plays third base like he came down from a higher league."

He hasn't been in a game since 1977, when he took off the Orioles' uniform after his career spanned 23 years with the same team, yet the mere mention of his name or a guest appearance on the field brings a resounding ovation.

Why? The public is smart and observant. It isn't duped or dumb; it realizes the special qualities of an extraordinary individual, a man of good taste and purpose. Worthy of emulation. If his patience is being tested by public demand, he doesn't respond with an equal display of rudeness.

Flash now to 1978. Location: Cooperstown, N.Y., the lobby of the Otesaga Hotel. Hall of Fame induction day. A sportswriter introduced himself to Brooks' mother and said it was regrettable Mr. Robinson hadn't lived to experience the honors coming to their son.

"I have great faith," she answered. "I believe his dad is in heaven and knows about this." Then from the sportswriter came a direct compliment to Mrs. Robinson, "Well, you and his father made him the kind of man he is by the direction you provided as he grew up."

"No," she answered, dodging the flattery. "We can't take credit. Where we lived in Little Rock was a block from the School for the Blind and a block from the School for the Deaf. Brooks grew up playing and having fun with those children, and I believe the experience gave him his deep sensitivity for others. He even learned sign language."

His personality is such that he transmits confidence and exudes friendship. Sunshine where there's darkness, a smile when there's sorrow. That's just the way he is; nothing contrived, staged or artificial.

Looking to do for others, for example a lonely soldier in a fire station in Vietnam, where he once waited seven hours to meet a youngster out on a mission, just so he could come back to notify a mother in Parkville, Md., that he had met her son. He carried a message home from the jungle, one of love and Christmas wishes.

That same mother called a newspaper office to say for all the rest of her life she would be on her knees nightly, before going to bed, and in her prayers ask for blessings on behalf of Brooks for what he had done.

And then the call to a talk show, where another story was shared. A small child had a colostomy, rare for one so young. Brooks called Johns Hopkins Hospital to visit, even left a personal check. Then, when the time came for the boy to return home, he found their house in Ferndale, Md., and was waiting to lift him out of the car and carry him into the house.

Once, at a fund-raising banquet for Mary Dobkin, who managed Baltimore sandlot teams, made up of kids filled with grime and victims of hard-knocks, he flew on a Thanksgiving weekend from Little Rock, where he was enjoying the holiday, to Baltimore, and then back to Little Rock to pick up his wife and children at his own expense. Far beyond the call of duty.

Yes, an exemplary human being. Measure him any way you want. The result is always the same: goodness. After he was extolled during a sports banquet at Towson University, and only by chance, we left the building with Cal Ripken Jr. The walk was across a dark and slippery parking lot on a January night. "Those things about Brooks were beautiful," Cal said. "Stop to think how much time and effort it takes to do all that. It just doesn't happen. Brooks had to want to do it."

Most athletes are not averse to works of mercy. But rarely do they fulfill such good intentions. Some never do. Not even once, or even by accident. Brooks Robinson has -- a multitude of times as a player and continuing in baseball retirement.

When he played and after he left the game, he was the signature Oriole; the one player synonymous with the franchise. You connected him in thought the same as John Unitas of the Baltimore Colts or Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals or Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. The identity was there, player with team and team with player.

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