Opinion

OPINION | GARY SMITH: How Brooks Robinson changed life for a unathletic kid in Michigan

Robinson, at third base, changed my life

I'm going to blame it on Brooks Robinson.

And he'd probably accept responsibility with all the grace you'd expect from someone who was widely reported to be a genuine nice person and all-around good guy in a business and world where fewer and fewer can fit those descriptions.

Robinson, for the un- or ill-informed, was probably the best-fielding third baseman in the history of Major League Baseball. Yes, I know, a bit of a niche designation, but at times extremely important

And one of those times was the 1970 World Series when Robinson basically caught everything hit to the left side of the infield and led the Baltimore Orioles to beat the fearsome "Big Red Machine" Cincinnati Reds four games to one.

One of those incredible catches, a diving stab to his left to grab a liner off the bat of Johnny Bench, was captured in a photo that wound up plastered across the top of the Sports page of the Detroit Free Press, which my mother and father read religiously every day and which I glanced at.

That glance and that photo was enough. From that moment on, a vaguely disinterested and extremely unathletic 10-year-old was hooked on baseball and sports in general. Apparently it takes less to trigger a lifetime obsession than you'd imagine.

Robinson died Tuesday at the age of 86. He was the 1964 American League Most Valuable Player, an 18-time All Star and the 1970 World Series MVP. He won 16 Gold Gloves for fielding and was a fixture in the Baltimore community.

One thing about Robinson beyond his fielding and good-guy imagine: He knew how to stick around. He played his entire 23-year career with the Orioles, which pales in comparison to the fact that he and his wife were married for 63 years.

While he made his name in Baltimore, he was actually from Arkansas, a three-sport athlete at Little Rock Central High School.

And, again, it's his fault. His fault I've wasted countless hours watching grown men stare, spit and, occasionally, actually play baseball. His fault I wore out numerous baseballs and my mother's patience throwing the ball against the house and fielding it, imagining I was playing the Hot Corner at Memorial Stadium.

His fault I allowed baseball to be the gateway drug that led to obsession with football, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, auto racing, the Olympics and, basically, any other athletic activity people can play, up to and including buzkashi (the national sport of Afghanistan: it involves horses and a goat carcass. Probably tells you all you need to know about a lot of things).

And it's his "fault," too, I was able to connect with my father, who, while a great dad despite the lack of any sort of positive modeling from his own father, was having a little trouble finding common ground with that aforementioned disinterested, unathletic youngest son.

What had been awkward silences bracketed by "So ... how was your day?" soon turned into shared joy and misery over a stupid game, as well as trips to Detroit from our northern Michigan U.S. Air Force base home to watch the Orioles play the Tigers (a note: It's possible to be an Orioles fan in Tiger-mad Michigan. I just wouldn't recommend it).

We would also have fierce debates over whether Aurelio Rodriguez of the Tigers was a better third baseman than Robinson (something he did not, in any way believe. However, even a Robinson fan would have to admit that Rodriguez had a great throwing arm and the most magnificent mustache in baseball).

Baseball, according to the poet Donald Hall, is fathers playing catch with sons, which I can attest is true. He also said football was brothers beating each other up in the backyard, a characterization I can also report is accurate though it might have a lot more to do with the brothers than the game itself.

My own fan affiliation with the Orioles faded when we left Michigan for Arkansas: Robinson left the field for a well-earned but busy retirement and I entered into a deeper, longer-term and equally maddening relationship with the St. Louis Cardinals, which I have passed down to my own children. "Passed," "cursed with," to-may-toe, to-mah-toe ...

But I still remember that catch. And all the catches with my father and the moments with him and my own children that followed. If I might be so bold to suggest, that's what sports does. And what it's all about. And for me, it's all Robinson's fault.

Thanks, Brooks.

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