Baseball Men - The Fielder


Posted Nov 15, 2006


Our “Baseball Men” interview series continues with Brooks Robinson, 16-time Gold Glove winner and Hall of Famer.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments:  The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans’.

 

 

Pete Rose once said Brooks Robinson belongs in another, higher league. Anyone who witnessed Robinson’s defensive career knew exactly what Rose was talking about - the man defined fielding brilliance for his time and all time.

 

In the course of a 23-year tenure with the Orioles, ‘The Human Vacuum Cleaner’ was honored through 15 All Star Game appearances and no less than 16 Gold Gloves (ten more than the next-most recognized third baseman of all time). In the process, he set all-time position records in everything from assists and double plays to fielding percentage. The O’s leader was at the heart of some of the greatest defensive teams ever assembled, and to this day, 30 years removed from his 1977 retirement, a ‘Brooks Robinson catch’ is still bandied about as a superlative.

 

Recently, Brooks discussed his one-of-a-kind glove work:

 

 

What did baseball mean to you when you were growing up?

 

I never wanted to be anything in my life except be a baseball player (chuckles).

 

My Dad had a lot to do with that. He was a terrific semi-pro player in Little Rock, [Arkansas], playing fast-pitch softball, which was really big in the area. In fact, Dad played for an International Harvester team that traveled to Soldier's Field, Chicago to play for a national championship in 1938. They got beat out by something like 2-1. I tagged along with him all the time, serving as a bat boy for dad and his fellow firemen on the Riverside team.

 

I considered myself a student of the game. I remember when Babe Ruth died in 1948, I tore out his picture and pasted it in my scrapbook. I knew about the great Grover Cleveland Alexander. I knew about Johnny Vander Meer, pitching back-to-back no-hitters [in 1938]. I always respected the game a great deal. In the eighth grade, you might know, I had to write a booklet on 'My Vocation', about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I ended up writing about becoming a baseball player, researching all the information on salaries and conditions, complete with pictures and such.

 

You're being presumptuous when you think about being a pro baseball player (chuckles), considering the odds involved, but when you're 13-, 14-years old, there's a different mentality, I guess.

 

Goals are one thing, skills are another. What gave you the confidence to think you'd make the Majors?

 

I always had the hand-eye coordination, which was more or less a God-given talent. I'd draw a parallel to basketball rebounding, where I just knew when to jump, not too soon, not too late. I was like that on a baseball field. Even at an early age, I had some quick hands and good instincts for the ball.

 

As I understand it, even as a very young man, you had a reputation as a hard worker. Can you talk about that?

 

I can remember going out the back alley - it was just a rocky road - and wearing out, it seemed like, a hundred broomsticks by picking up rocks and hitting them to a vacant alley. Then I'd go out to the steps with a tennis ball or a golf ball and toss 'em in there, getting used to the tricky hop or the short hop. You said I was a hard worker, but I really didn't think of it as work. It was a passion, more than anything else.

 

My life revolved around sports and it wore me out, sometimes. I went back to my 50th year high school reunion in 2005. They asked me to say a few words and I looked up at the sky and said, 'Thank God for Mrs. Ryman' (chuckles). Without that good lady, I never would have passed geometry.

 

You started off as a second baseman and shortstop in the Minors. Why did the team switch you to third base in the Majors?

 

[The Orioles organization] just felt that third base was the best position for me in the long run. I suppose it was more of a reflex position, where you don't have to cover as much ground. I never had much speed, so I probably couldn't have been much of a shortstop.

 

They used to make fun of my throws, too. [First baseman] Boog [Powell] used to yell, 'Annie, over!' He used to say, 'You know, Brooks always got ‘em by about half a step' (chuckles).

 

One of the first things coaches tell kids is - 'Don't be afraid of the ball'. Did that ever come into your mind in the hot corner, that you're basically trying to pick up this tiny, rock-hard sphere as it's heading toward you at 110 miles per hour?

 

It was never in my mind. I never even thought about it. After all, I could protect myself - I could catch the ball (chuckles). I got beaned five or six times during my career, too, and that didn't think much about those, either. It scared me for a while but, hey, you've got to get back and do it. In time, bouncing back gets to be second nature.

 

I won't kid, you, though, it could be tough. When I did get hit by the ball, it was usually in the inside of my legs, right below the cup, and I had bruises you wouldn't believe. (chuckles) My teammates used to kid about my soft body, though, because the ball never did ricochet too far off. On a more muscular player, the ball might bounce seven or eight yards away, but me, heck, mostly, it just died (chuckles).

 

From what I understand, you were, if anything, eager to accept challenges, especially on bunts.

 

Oh, I hated when guys tried to bunt on me. I took that personally (chuckles). Guys like Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio, Rod Carew - I'd almost get in their face because I didn't want them to get on with a little bunt. If they could hit it square and get it by me, then it got by me.

 

In looking out for those guys or other hitters, did you have a formal set of scouting reports?

 

Well, it wasn't something I took notes on, it was mostly experience. You take a guy like Frank Howard - I knew he ran like me, so I could play him back. Other guys, I had it in my head what they could do and couldn't do, as far as bunting and pulling the ball and so on.

 

There's a lot of concentration involved in good fielding, at third base or in any infield position. For instance, if you observe, you can see a batter leaning this way or that way, trying to set up for his pitch. Even a foul ball can tell you a lot about what he's got, so you really don't have a lot of time to think about where you're going out to dinner or your cleats or what have you. 

 

A lot of anticipation depended on the pitch call, too. I couldn't see the signs from the catcher over at third, so I'd develop a set of little signals with the shortstop. For instance, Mark Belanger would tell me if a [Mike] Cuellar or [Jim] Palmer curve was coming up, just by him saying 'Be alive' or 'Brooks'. That's when I would change my thinking, just a little, and lean.

 

You've mentioned that one of your most famous plays, from the 1970 World Series, was based on that kind of anticipation - the play where you threw out Johnny Bench after diving three or four feet into foul territory. Can you talk about that?

 

Oh, I knew that Belanger and myself were going to get a lot of work that series because the Reds had guys like Tony Perez and Johnny Bench and Lee May, right-handed hitters who could really pull the ball.

 

In that particular play, I knew Cuellar would be tossing a big curve that John might get in front of. The way it happened, he hit a semi-line drive and, just because of that little lean to my right, I was able to dive, catch, and throw the ball just in time.

 

Who was the toughest player for you to defend against?

 

Probably Mickey Mantle. He had speed, he had power, and he could go left-center or right-center, though he’d seldom pull the ball directly to me.

 

The phrase 'pitching and defense' almost always go together in team-building. Can you describe how you and your fellow fielders reinforced your pitching staff?

 

I think all our pitchers realized, 'hey, we got to make these guys hit the ball. If they hit the ball, we've got a chance'. I think, basically, they knew not to walk guys. They worked fast, kept the ball low, and went right after ‘em. Obviously, on our staffs you had a number of All Stars, who were tremendous players in their own right.

 

[Former Orioles General Manager] Paul Richards’ philosophy was, if you want a respectable team, you have to build with pitching and defense. If you've got that, you'll be in just about every ball game, and with that, you've got to hope the hitting comes.

 

Did you see some of your more spectacular plays demoralizing opponents?

 

Sure. I was at a charity event recently when I ran into [former Tiger slugger] Willie Horton. He told me, 'Man, if I didn't have you down there, I'd have hit 30 points higher' (chuckles). I just laughed. Everywhere I go, it seems, someone tells me something like that (chuckles). Hey, that was the job.

 

Did hitting slumps every carry over to your game on the field?

 

No, I don't think hitting slumps ever bothered me, I never took it onto the field. I know other guys might get discouraged at times.

 

It's concentrating on the field, more than anything, that can be tiring - I'd hate to tell you how many times I went up there and I just gave away an at-bat. There were times when I just couldn't find enough mental energy.

 

I know you've been asked this more than once - how do you explain your incredible success in All-Star Games and the postseason?

 

Well, the only thing I could tell you is that I could find more concentration in those Series. Of course, I wasn't always successful. I had one hit in the whole Mets series, in '69. Ron Swoboda took another one away from me and people remember that catch, too (chuckles).

 

Earl Weaver once said, 'in all the words I managed them, I don't think I ever said more than 30 words to Frank Robinson or Brooks on the field'. Is that true?

 

That's true. Weaver trusted proven veterans to go out there and do their jobs. We might have gone with us too long, especially me (chuckles). About the only established player Earl said more than 30 words to was Palmer, and that's because he thought he knew more about pitching (chuckles). But then again, Palmer thought he knew more about managing!

 

Earl respected us and I can tell you we respected him, too. This is a guy who grew up in St. Louis but couldn't quite make it to the big leagues, so he goes back down to [Minor Leagues Class] D, C, B, A, Major Leagues, Hall of Fame. It takes a great deal of fortitude to do something like that.

 

You mentioned your so-called 'soft body' earlier, but you were a guy who probably played in 97% of all Orioles games over a 15 year period. Teammates still talk about how you went out and performed with chipped teeth, strains, sprains, bruises, cuts, broken fingers. How did you stay so resilient for so long?

 

In my first years, I got called up and down like a yo-yo and saw a lot of kids get called down to the Minors without even getting a chance to play. One way or the other, I had the philosophy, 'If there's a game, I've got to be in it'.

 

I still get a laugh about Spring Training back in '61, when my wife was expecting the birth of our third child. We were training in Miami. My wife had our child and I went to an exhibition game the next day in Tampa. It didn't even enter my mind to say, 'My wife's just had a baby. Let me beg off on this one'. That was the mentality back in those days.

 

Can you talk about the way you worked with your glove?

 

The gloves were always special. I always had a game glove, and I always treated it very carefully-

 

You sounded like you were about to say 'like Gold'.

 

(chuckles) You're right. That wasn't too far from the truth.

 

The gloves were special to me and I might have been a little notorious with my teammates. I'd go around the clubhouse and see who had broken in their gloves pretty well, and sometimes I'd trade a couple of my backups for one that I really liked. Did you see my glove in Cooperstown? The one from the '70 Series?

 

I didn’t, no.

 

That originally belonged to my teammate, Dave May. You can see where I crossed off his name and wrote 'Brooks' over there, so Davey May sometimes asks how his glove is doing in the Hall of Fame!

 

The guy who started me thinking about it was a terrific shortstop by the name of Willie Miranda, God rest his soul. Willie was there when I first came up and he had tongue depressors in the thumb to keep it stiff, he had foam rubber in different places where the leather might be tearing up. He got me thinking, so once I broke a glove in, I'd use it until I just couldn't use it anymore. Up to two years.

 

I've got to admit, there was a psychological part of it as well. I remember, early in my career, someone broke into our clubhouse in Boston and stole some of our gloves. I thought to myself, 'I'm not going to be as good'. We got the gloves back, but that was the first thought in my mind.

 

When people talk about your career they always talk about defense, first and foremost, often overlooking the ’64 MVP award and career home run totals. Does that ever frustrate you?

 

Well, when I was first coming up, offense was seen as the key to the game. Defense never got much publicity - it was always offense, offense, offense. That's even more true in today's game, obviously. I guess a lot of people are naturally going to think about defense only in those times when errors come up to cost a ball game.

 

Does it bother me? Not at all. I've been very fortunate.

 

 

The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.



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