April 5, 2008
He still remembers the first professional uniform he ever wore. He was 18 years old, fresh off the bus from Arkansas. The jersey said White Roses across the chest. In his first pro game, the public address announcer in York, Pa., announced the team's new second baseman as Bob Robinson.
The image of Brooks Robinson in a uniform that says anything other than " Orioles" or "Baltimore" is a foreign one, but one that will now be preserved for years to come. A life-size bronze statue of a young Robinson, donning that first pro uniform, will be unveiled at a ceremony today in York.
"Going from Bob Robinson to this statue is a pretty big leap," Robinson says with a laugh.
It's quite an honor, and the York Revolution, an independent baseball team owned by a group that includes Robinson, should be commended. But I know what you're thinking.
You're thinking about the Stan Musial statue in St. Louis. And the Tony Gwynn statue in San Diego. And the Ernie Banks statue unveiled this week in Chicago. And Willie Mays and Willie McCovey in San Francisco. And Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner and Willie Stargell in Pittsburgh. And ... well, you get the idea.
Why is Robinson being bronzed in York, where his career was born, but not in Baltimore, where his legacy was formed, carefully crafted, dipped in gold and deserving of preservation until the end of days?
The short answer you might find frustrating, and the long one, maddening. It's the kind of travesty that only seems to happen in this city and with this franchise. Before we get to the Baltimore part of the story, let's start where Brooks did - in York.
"He's just beloved there," says Peter Kirk, chairman of Opening Day Partners, which owns and operates three teams, including the Revolution. "He played his first professional game as an 18-year-old, and even though he was only there for a few months, he became part of the community."
When Robinson was brought on board as part of the ownership group this spring, plans were already under way to construct a statue that would serve as the centerpiece to the newly named Brooks Robinson Plaza, a stone's throw away from Brooks Robinson Way.
Kirk says the Revolution certainly wasn't trying to upstage Baltimore. In truth, the team was simply filling the void, doing what should've been done around here long ago. But why hasn't it? Surely someone has thought before about honoring Robinson. After all, there's a Babe Ruth statue outside of Camden Yards, and a Johnny Unitas statue outside M&T Bank Stadium.
It should come as no surprise that there has actually been a concerted effort to memorialize Robinson with a statue in Baltimore. There's a small group of businessmen, philanthropists and baseball fans who raised all the funds, who had the sketch work done for a 16-foot statue, who even had a miniature model made. This was three years ago.
The plans were shared with the Maryland Stadium Authority, which oversees Camden Yards, and with the Orioles, who would have to approve such an addition. "The only thing we're waiting on is Peter Angelos," one of the group members told me. "All we have to do is get the green light, and we're ready to go."
An Orioles spokesman said that though he's not aware of any pending plans to honor Robinson or any other players with statues, the organization is supportive of York's efforts and "thrilled" for Robinson.
"Brooks Robinson is Mr. Oriole," said Greg Bader, the Orioles' director of communications. "Like the other great Oriole Hall of Famers, he is honored with the display of his retired number as part of our retired number statues. This has been a tradition since Camden Yards opened to honor Oriole greats in this manner." In addition to the 5-foot statues of retired numbers, former Orioles players are also honored with plaques along Eutaw Street and in a display in the Sports Legends Museum.
Robinson is plenty familiar with the plan for a Baltimore statue. He would never raise a fuss, though, over who chooses to honor him and who doesn't.
"You know, they already honor us. We have the numbers out there," Robinson said. "I don't think Peter's really made up his mind with what he wants to do. There's been talk of having something like the Yankees do in center field, honoring the six numbers that have been retired. That's fine with me."
Of course it's fine with Robinson. But it shouldn't be with everyone else. He deserves more. Today's unveiling of the York statue should impress upon Orioles ownership the dire need to right this wrong.
It's one thing to sell fans 10 years of losing baseball, but it's utterly embarrassing that an independent team 50 miles up the road has to pick up the slack and honor a treasured piece of Orioles history. Baseball fans in Baltimore are proud of Robinson; the ballclub should be, too.
Robinson was told about the York statue several months ago. He had tears in his eyes, and in turn, so did everyone nearby. He seems humbled by the honor.
Robinson fondly remembers his brief stint in York, where he first played third base. He recalls his father taking the bus to watch him play, an exhibition game between the White Roses and the Orioles. The White Roses won, 13-1, aided by a three-run home run by Robinson.
"I had a wonderful time in York, a wonderful manager, George Staller, so many nice things happened," he said.
He also remembers that September call-up, a teenager going from York to Baltimore - a short trip but a gigantic leap - for his major league debut. "I remember going back to the hotel after I got two hits, called my mom and dad. I said, 'Guess what? Two-for-4 today, knocked in a big run. I don't know what the hell I was doing at York. I should be here in the big leagues,' " Robinson says. "Then I went 0-for-18, struck out 10 times. I knew I had a long way to go."
Kirk, the Revolution owner, says the York statue - modeled off the famed Norman Rockwell painting - honors an 18-year-old Robinson. Though the statue wears a No. 5 uniform, it doesn't purport to depict an Oriole. This means there's plenty of room for another statue.
"We're honoring Brooks at the very beginning of his career," Kirk says. "There have been a number of people who have talked about trying to honor Brooks with a statue in Baltimore. Perhaps what we're doing in York will help push that project over the top and finally give Brooks the recognition in Baltimore that he really deserves."
It's an honor long overdue, an idea that should stand tall and proud near the stadium gates, not lie ignored, collecting dust on a warehouse desk. For the Orioles, who are thankfully finally rebuilding from the ground up, the future cannot arrive soon enough. But it should never come at the expense of the past.
In Baltimore, it's not that Robinson will ever be forgotten. He just deserves to be remembered properly.
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