Cornerstone at third base

Think of the Orioles and you think of Brooks Robinson and his brilliant defense. Tireless work led to 16 Gold Gloves.

Orioles At 50

May 07, 2004|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

Brooks Robinson's peers believe his defense wasn't just one of the Orioles' defining characteristics.

His play at third base was the defining characteristic, they say.

"The Orioles were built on having great defense, and Brooks was the cornerstone," said Ron Hansen, who played shortstop alongside Robinson in the early 1960s.

Earl Weaver's tantrums and Cal Ripken's streak also became symbols of the franchise, but nothing over the decades ranks ahead of Robinson's defense.

"That's the Baltimore Orioles right there," said George Kell, a Hall of Famer who tutored Robinson in the 1950s.

Robinson smiled recently when he heard Kell's comment.

"I loved playing the field," he said. "It sounds simple, but I enjoyed catching the ball."

He is widely regarded as the best third baseman ever, and though defensive masterwork can be hard to quantify, his 16 Gold Glove awards, won consecutively, make the point. No other player in major league history has won more. (Pitcher Jim Kaat also won 16 straight.)

"Is Brooks the best ever at third? No doubt about it," Kell, 81, said from his Clifton, Ark., home.

Most fans associate Robinson's prowess with the 1970 World Series, when he discouraged the Cincinnati Reds with a series of seemingly impossible plays and was named the series' Most Valuable Player after the Orioles' championship.

"But we kind of laughed at the fuss everyone made," said Dick Hall, an Orioles reliever that year. "We'd seen him make those kinds of plays for years."

Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks still remembers his first "Brooks moment." The team was in Oakland for the 1968 season opener. Hendricks was a rookie catcher, fresh from the Mexican League. Robinson was 30, in his prime.

Early in the game, Oakland's fleet Bert Campaneris pushed a bunt between the mound and third as a runner on first sprinted for second.

"Where I'd come [See Orioles, 3c] [Orioles, from Page 1c] from, that was a hit," Hendricks recalled. "Brooks was on it instantly, and without even looking, threw to second for a force. Then there was a throw to first, double play, inning over in half a second.

"I was sitting in the bullpen and my mouth fell open. I went, `You've got to be kidding me. I don't believe what I just saw.'"

His veteran bullpen mates just shrugged.

In some respects, Robinson wasn't destined for defensive greatness. His arm wasn't that strong. His body wasn't chiseled. He lacked speed.

But his hands were fast and sure, enabling him to catch balls and get rid of them in a blink.

And his first steps were as quick as an All-Star hockey goalie's.

"He got to the ball, caught it and got rid of it faster than anyone," Hall said. "He had a combination of talents that were perfect for the position."

Was there a secret to his success? Robinson has an explanation.

"Hand-eye coordination, for sure," he said. "That was a God-given talent, and I had it."

He spent "countless hours" as a youngster throwing a golf ball or a tennis ball against the steps of his house in Little Rock, Ark., and "I always caught it," he said.

He also had a natural instinct for the ball - in every sport.

"I was a great rebounder in basketball, just had that knack for going up when the ball was coming down," Robinson said. "It didn't matter what sport: I was always around the ball."

Oddly, though he was a right-handed fielder and batter, he did almost everything else left-handed - ate, wrote, played tennis. Hall said that gave him an advantage.

"He had his glove on his strongest hand, unlike most fielders," Hall said.

`No one worked harder'

He also worked hard, refusing to take his success for granted.

"Major league infielders make it look easy," Hall said, "but that's misleading. It takes a lot of hard work to be that good. And no one worked harder than Brooks."

After spring training workouts in Miami, he headed to a small field adjacent to Bobby Maduro Stadium and took extra balls.

"He worked on charging bunts and picking them up," Hall said. "He thought it was a shortcoming. But he eventually became known as the best of anyone who did it."

During the season, Orioles coach Billy Hunter hit him hundreds of ground balls before every game. Then his peerless power of concentration - another key to his success - took over when the game began.

"Concentration is such an important aspect of baseball," Robinson said. "When there are 30 seconds between pitches, your mind has time to wander. You really have to fight that.

"One time in Kansas City, I looked down and noticed I was wearing a mismatched pair of cleats. Then the ball was hit and I didn't get it. I said, `You should have had that.' But I wasn't concentrating."

That seldom happened.

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