The year was 1959. I was 12 and shy to a fault. But an almost close encounter with my baseball hero, Gus Triandos, would change my life forever.
Big Gus exploded onto the Baltimore baseball landscape, and into the lives of countless youngsters like me, in 1955. Brooks Robinson arrived at about the same time, but he would need a little seasoning down on the farm before becoming the game's all-time third baseman.
Not so with Gus Triandos, a brawny, slow-footed catcher who wore number 11, and who, from an incredible spread-eagle stance, hit tape measure home runs in cavernous Memorial Stadium, a feat none of his under-achieving teammates would match until the arrival of Diamond Jim Gentile in 1960.
But Gus was our hero because of a lot more than muscle. He was a genuine good guy, a man who cared for his teammates and who understood the "give back" component when it came to ballplayers and community relations. He was there for the fans, especially young fans. Kids understood that, and they embraced the big man almost from the day he arrived at the Orioles' 33rd Street home.
Three of his baseball exploits stand out. Each occurred in 1958, and I witnessed them all, first hand, with my father. Though Triandos made the All-Star team four times, it was his appearance as the starting catcher for the '58 American League squad here in Baltimore that proved extra-extra special and was perhaps Baltimore's first great baseball moment.
Yankee catcher Yogi Berra was top dog in the '50s, and when Gus beat out Yogi for the starting catcher spot, Orioles fans went tipsy. In his first at-bat, following a huge home-town ovation, he singled. Later, when Mr. Berra was inserted into the game, Baltimore boo-birds answered with an ear-splitting reaction, painful even to my father and me in our seats high above first base in Memorial Stadium's upper deck.
My other Gus baseball moments happened simultaneously that same year, in late September, the 20th, to be exact. My dad had us perched in the splintered wooden bleachers way out in left field, where we watched in awe as knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm drove his catcher, Big Gus, batty with his darting deliveries, and the opposition even battier. Wilhelm beat the New York Yankees 1-0 that day, pitching the first no-hit shutout in Orioles history.
The winning run: a 425 foot home run into, you guessed it, the left field bleachers, just over our heads. That home run was Triandos' 30th of the year, tying the record for American League catchers, held by none other than Yogi Berra.
I worshiped Gus. We all did, mimicking his wide stance, trying to pull the long ball in sandlot play. One Saturday in 1959, Gus was appearing at a nearby school auditorium to sign autographs and talk a little baseball. My dad took me to meet my hero and to collect a coveted Triandos autograph. When the time came for me to walk up and do the deed, I chickened out. My father was beside himself. I was too shy, and it cost me, big time.
For years I regretted not having met Gus, but I held out hope that I still might meet him, maybe through my work at the Babe Ruth Museum. But it never happened. So when I heard of his passing last week and realized that my lingering hope was forever extinguished, it was an icy slap of reality.
Nevertheless, Gus Triandos did change my life forever because that failed autograph opportunity in 1959 made me realize that being shy wasn't going to get it done for Mike Gibbons. And for those of you who may know me through the museum, you know that I am the antithesis of shy.
Thanks, Big Gus, for that, and so much more. You truly were Baltimore's first sports hero.
Mike Gibbons is the executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. His email is email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun