O's fans can say goodbye with best

Gone: Other Oriole departures have turned Baltimore upside down.

October 06, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Orioles fans have gotten pretty good at saying goodbye over the years.

We toasted Brooks Robinson and his career in 1977 with the sort of love fest usually earmarked for a revered big brother.

We said thanks to Earl Weaver in 1982 with an outpouring of affection that seemed to say, "Thanks, Dad, you raised us right. We'll take it from here." (Oh, if only we'd known how hard that would be!)

Two years later, we watched Jim Palmer's career fade into the twilight with more respect than adulation, the way you part company with a friend who may have disappointed or ticked you off on occasion, but perhaps meant more to you than you ever let on.

By tomorrow, we'll have said goodbye to yet another lifelong Oriole, perhaps the greatest of them all. It's hard to say precisely how we and Cal Ripken Jr. will mark our final day together. But here's betting the occasion will leave a collective lump in the city's throat.

Here's to you, Mr. Robinson

That's what happened back in '77, when Robinson decided to call it quits after 23 seasons with the Birds. How much did Brooks mean to this city? In New York, a wag once noted, they named a candy bar after Reggie Jackson. In Baltimore, they named their sons after Brooks Robinson.

No one wanted to see Brooks' career end, least of all Brooks. Many fans thought he'd retire after the 1976 season, after a horrible offensive year (he batted only .211) in which he'd played only part-time. But the Gold Glover they called Hoover (after the vacuum) wasn't ready to call it quits.

"I worked on some things over the wintertime, and thought I could still play some," he recalls today.

But it was soon clear Brooks' playing days were over. By mid-August, his role reduced to that of player-coach and occasional pinch-hitter, he was ready. And when the Orioles needed to clear a roster spot for catcher Rick Dempsey to come off the disabled list, Robinson quietly retired.

"I kind of lost interest in what was going on," he says, "and about the middle of the year, I realized my career was over."

The team was playing in Minnesota at the time, and the fans there gave Brooks a nice ovation when an announcement was made. But there were no ovations in other parks, no final at-bats, no fanfare and gifts.

"I never even thought about it," he says of the lack of grand, Ripken-style goodbyes in other ballparks. "It never crossed my mind."

In Baltimore, though, things were different. Robinson had been with the team almost from the start (a year after the team moved from St. Louis in 1954). There was an emotional attachment between player and fans. This was not going to be an easy goodbye.

On Sept. 18, a then-record 51,798 fans crowded into Memorial Stadium for Thanks Brooks Day. Speeches were made, gifts were presented, tears were shed. Robinson circled the field in a 1956 Cadillac, then spoke to the crowd.

"In my wildest dreams, I never thought I'd be standing here saying goodbye this way," he said, going on for a few more sentences before concluding, "It's been a beautiful 23 years. It turned out to be a beautiful day, and you're a beautiful people. Thank you very much."

With that, the player known as Mr. Oriole was gone - but only from the playing field. He remained here in Baltimore, raising his family, working here, turning up at all manner of civic events. And when, in 1995, on the night Ripken played consecutive game number 2,131, Robinson said he was passing on the mantle of Mr. Oriole, he didn't mean it.

"Really, I had my fingers crossed," he says today.

The Earl of Baltimore

Among those giving speeches on Thanks Brooks Day was Earl Weaver, the Orioles' manager since mid-1968. The skipper had guided the team to five playoffs, three pennants and a World Series title in eight seasons, and established a winning tradition that made the Birds one of baseball's dominant teams.

But Earl was no Brooks; there was little lovable about the irascible, chain-smoking, profanity-spewing, umpire-baiting Weaver. Except that he kept winning.

Sitting in the dugout, watching the outpouring of emotion for Robinson that day, Earl may have wondered what sort of reception he'd get when he left the game. Five years later, he found out, during one of the most memorable weekends in Orioles history.

His teams had never stopped winning. They'd made it to the World Series again in 1979, and narrowly missed the postseason in 1980. (It was only during an ill-advised comeback, midway through the 1985 season, that Weaver would manage a team to a losing record.) In 1982, despite a slow start, the team was making its typical run at first by season's end. Except that things were different; midway through the season, Earl announced that he'd be retiring when it was over.

"I had mentioned to people that this would probably be my last season," Weaver says today. "I guess I had made up my mind, but I didn't say anything about it until midseason."

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