Former Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson is No. 3 on The… (AP file photo )
Brooks Robinson owned third base. Still does. At his sendoff in 1977 — a "Thanks, Brooks" Day at a packed Memorial Stadium — Robinson's successor, Doug DeCinces, removed third base from its moorings and presented it to the Orioles veteran.
"This is always yours," DeCinces said.
Baltimore agreed. In 23 years on that spot, fans said, how many runs had Robinson's glovework saved? How many rallies had he killed with his backhand stabs, airborne stops and off-balance pegs to first base? How many batters had he sent back to the bench, muttering to themselves about a hit that should have been?
Moreover, in all of sports, how many athletes had performed with such grace and artistry as to inspire a Norman Rockwell painting?
No position player in baseball history has won as many Gold Gloves as Robinson (16), though he hasn't the hardware to prove it, having donated most of the awards to charities. He was the first Oriole named the American League's Most Valuable Player, in 1964 ... the MVP of the 1970 World Series ... an 18-time All-Star and MVP of the 1966 game ... and a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame in 1983, his first year eligible.
"Throughout my career, I was committed to the goodness of this game," he said at his induction.
Modest, homespun and self-effacing, he'd won the city's heart long before.
"When Brooks went in [to Cooperstown], it was like a member of your family going in," said Bill Tanton, then sports editor of The Evening Sun.
Signed in 1955, Robinson impressed right off the bat with his fielding. Reporters called the 18-year-old "the fancy-fingered kid" and "the youngster with a baseball magnet in his glove."
He retired with 268 home runs, 1,357 RBIs, two World Series rings and the gratitude of Orioles fans who'd seen him singlehandedly — or, sometimes, with both hands — rob Cincinnati's sluggers in the 1970 World Series.
"We have no Brooks Robinson in the National League," Reds manager Sparky Anderson said. "Brooks is like [Sandy] Koufax, [Willie] Mays and [Mickey] Mantle. They're in a class of their own."
In 1999, Major League Baseball named Robinson to its All-Century team. And, five years ago, in a poll conducted by Rawlings, fans voted the man nicknamed "The Human Vacuum Cleaner" the best defensive third baseman of all time.
The Orioles' No. 5 is No. 3 on The Sun's countdown of greatest Maryland athletes.
"I am humbled to be part of this list," Robinson, 74, said via email from his home in Baltimore, where he is undergoing rehabilitation for injuries suffered in a fall last winter. At a charity event in Florida, in January, he fell backward off the six-foot stage on which he was seated, fracturing his scapula (shoulder blade).
Robinson was to have attended the dedication of his statue at Camden Yards on May 12, but that has been rescheduled for Sept. 29.
Though he declined an interview with The Sun, he passed on his thoughts by email.
"I am truly honored to rank so high in the poll with the number of great athletes who were born in Maryland, or came here to play," Robinson said. "I was fortunate to play with teammates who were the best of the best at every position."
Few, however, hit it off with the Orioles' faithful like the folksy, moon-faced kid from Little Rock, Ark. Robinson once said he seldom attends an autograph signing without meeting "five or six" people named Brooks, in his honor.
"The fact that I played so long with one team resonates well with fans," he said in his email. To them, he said, "Thank you for your continued love and support. I never thought of you as fans, only as my friends."