It was Spring, 1973 on an all-dirt ballfield at Cromwell Field in Ferndale, Maryland. I was playing for Coach Rich Steelman on the Bronco League Mets of the Linthicum Ferndale Youth Athletic Association, when he took one look at me and said, “you…take third base.”
My previous experience on the sandlot was behind the plate as a catcher, and a better than average backstop as well. At the age of seven, no one on the Clinic League Red Sox wanted to put on the tools of ignorance and crouch behind a novice kid wielding a long wooden stick. Not only that, I had a kid who never pitched in organized baseball throwing a ball not knowing where it would end up, and I was supposed to catch it. Over fifty years later, I still have a bit of that adventurous spirit and am quick to raise my hand when asked and say, “sure, I’ll give it a try.”
I had zero playing time at the hot corner but was excited to find myself learning a new position. My DNA was devoid of speed but filled with quickness and good hand/eye coordination. Being a catcher taught you to block every ball thrown your way and third base was similar in that respect. Nothing gets by you. Another reason for my excitement was that third base was the home of Brooks Robinson, a future Hall-of-Famer with the Baltimore Orioles.
Growing up in a suburb of Baltimore, it was a requirement that you were an Orioles fan. And in the late 60’s/early 70’s, you were watching one of the best teams to ever grace the professional diamond. With Earl Weaver at the helm, and an infield of Boog Powell, Davey Johnson, Mark Belanger, and Brooks, and Don Buford, Paul Blair, and the other Robinson, Frank covering the outfield. Rounding out the club we had Andy Etchebarren behind the plate with a pitching rotation of Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson. These Orioles were making history.
My favorite though was Brooks Robinson. Mr. Hoover – The Human Vacuum cleaner. Brooks was the picture of perfection at third base. He set a standard defensively that was unmatched, and playing third base in little league, I was hoping to capture even a fraction of Robinson's magic.
If you were to ask me about the most influential figures of my childhood, Brooks Robinson would be the first name to roll off my tongue. I was captivated by the world of baseball, and Robinson's impressive skill and unyielding dedication on the diamond served as my motivation.
Robinson, legendary as a 16-time Golden Glove winner and one of the greatest third basemen in history, was not just a baseball player to me; he was an idol, a beacon of inspiration. As a 12-year-old aspiring to excel at the game of baseball, I looked up to Robinson, dreaming of emulating his game. His exceptional play, unwavering determination, and winning attitude motivated me to play at a very high level and to work hard at improving my game.
The remarkable natural instinct and agility that Robinson displayed on the field weren't his only admirable qualities. Off the field, he carried unmatched resilience and integrity, setting an example that extended beyond the game. He was a relatable hero - a man of immense talent yet grounded by humility and a strong work ethic. His values and dedication not only inspired me professionally but also personally, shaping the person I am today.
This week, however, the great Brooks Robinson drew his last breath, leaving behind millions of heartbroken fans, including myself. Yet, amidst the grief, the memories of the profound impact he had on my life flood back with overwhelming nostalgia.
The news of Robinson's passing was an undeniable blow. A pain of sadness enveloped me, not just because a baseball legend had left us, but a piece of my childhood had also faded away. That said, Robinson's death also prompted a flood of memories, moments when I would excitedly listen to his games on a crackly old transistor radio hidden under my pillow as I was supposed to be going to sleep. I would hear the announcers describe Brooks’ highlights in vivid detail as I dreamt about doing the same the next time I stepped onto the diamond.
With his departure, Robinson left behind an unmatched legacy. His influence reaches far above the feats of World Series victories or accolades. It reverberates in the lives of countless fans he inspired, including myself, who eagerly sought to learn from him, a kind of powerful impact that outlives the physical realm.
We mourn the loss of a legend today. However, amidst the grief, I also celebrate a man who sparked a passion for baseball in a young boy's heart, shaping my dreams, my path, and, ultimately, my life. The world will remember Brooks Robinson as an unrivaled third baseman, but I shall remember him as my hero - a beacon who sparked my dreams and guided me through childhood and into the man I am today.
Rest In Peace, Brooksie. Your innings might have ended here on earth, but your legacy, the joy, and inspiration you brought to the game, will keep playing in our hearts forever. Especially on the dirt fields filled with 12-year-olds in Ferndale, Maryland.