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Brooks Robinson rebounding from health scares, excited for sculpture unveiling

You see the jerseys every time the Orioles play at Camden Yards, often on boys born 20 years after the man shelved his famous mitt — No. 5. Robinson.

The combination of that name and that number will always stir the souls of those who watched Brooks Robinson make impossible play after impossible play along the third-base line at Memorial Stadium. But even their children and grandchildren, who never glimpsed his magician's act, have heard the stories of Robinson's kindness — the way anybody could run into him at the mall and receive not only an autograph but a few minutes of genial conversation with a Hall of Famer.

On a weekend when the Orioles are close to clinching their first playoff spot in 15 years, it seems fitting that Robinson, perhaps the most purely beloved athlete in Baltimore sports history, will be the last of six legends to have a commemorative sculpture unveiled at Camden Yards.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Robinson's statue was scheduled to be unveiled in May, but he had to reschedule because he was still weak after suffering a bad fall off a stage in Florida four months earlier. It was the latest in a string of health scares that left fans deeply concerned about the great third baseman.

So when Robinson, 75, walks out to speak before Saturday's game against the Boston Red Sox, the scene is sure to be emotional. Not only will he be surrounded by his fellow statue honorees, family members and other teammates. He will speak to a public that is grateful to see him at all.

"I know I'm going to have a hard time getting through it," Robinson said Wednesday, thinking ahead to the feelings that will well inside him.

Former Orioles shortstop Ron Hansen, a close friend since the 1950s, said he has seen a new depth of emotion from Robinson at public appearances in recent years. "We're all getting older," Hansen said. "It's nice to be recognized and to realize that people haven't forgotten all these years later. It's really something special."

The truth is, Robinson prefers not to talk about his health troubles, which have included prostate cancer, an extended hospitalization for an infection related to outpatient surgery and the January fall, in which he broke two bones in his shoulder.

First off, the information is private. But you also get the sense he doesn't want people making a fuss over him.

"I know a lot of people have been concerned about me," he said. "But I'm doing fine. I'm on the way back."

He has returned to signing autographs at memorabilia shows and has attended the sculpture unveilings for Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. (All three, along with Frank Robinson and Earl Weaver, are expected to attend Saturday's ceremony, which begins at 5:15 p.m.)

The key, Robinson said, is limiting himself to one or two significant undertakings a day. If he tries to push beyond that, he wears himself out.

Palmer said there's no question that thoughts of mortality will lend a special power to Robinson's ceremony. But he has always been struck by the sincerity of Robinson's bond with fans.

"There is no public persona," Palmer said. "He's just Brooksie — a humble, easy-going, soft-spoken guy. And people understand that he's really like that."

Few athletes inspire poignant thoughts from such a high percentage of fans.

"The Brooks statue unveiling is going to be extremely emotional, because Brooks will be always be the first face of the franchise and held that position for so long," said Baltimore tavern owner Chad Ellis, who has tickets for Saturday's game. "Wait until they run his career retrospective on the Jumbotron. Many grown men will weep."

Tom Keller traveled from North Carolina to attend the weekend homestand.

"Even without his poor health lurking in the background, Brooks' night would probably be the most emotional of all because he was the first great Oriole and affection is the core feeling he inspires in us," said Keller, a Baltimore native who grew up three blocks from Memorial Stadium. "Jim, Earl, Eddie, and Frank, we admire and respect immensely, but there is a certain aloofness that sets them apart from us. Cal we worship because of the other-worldliness of the streak. Brooks has always been closer to us and our hearts."

The statue will actually be the third to honor Robinson. There's one in York, Pa., where Robinson played minor league ball and has owned a share of the independent league York Revolution. And there's one just outside Camden Yards on Washington Boulevard Plaza, which was dedicated last October after a $700,000 fundraising effort by Baltimore businessman Henry Rosenberg.

The fact Robinson was honored elsewhere but not at Camden Yards fueled speculation about frosty relations between him and Orioles owner Peter Angelos. But Robinson downplayed such talk, going out of his way to thank the Angelos family for honoring the club's past with this season's statue unveilings.

"I'm fine with the Orioles," Robinson said. "I think the press maybe made too much ado about that."

Robinson said he's particularly excited that his ceremony will set the stage for a vital game in the current team's push to secure a playoff spot. Robinson said he has watched a lot of the 2012 Orioles on television and can't recall another team quite like it.

"The enthusiasm is the highest it has been in a long time," he said. "I can't think of any other time in Orioles history when a team has won quite this way. Everybody they call up seems to contribute."

Robinson knows that history as well as anyone. As he likes to point out, he essentially came to Baltimore with the team, debuting in 1955, the Orioles' second season of existence. He has watched, in person, the vast majority of players who have donned the uniform.

"I don't think many people can say that," he said. "I've had a pretty unusual career."

Asked how he feels about all those people who still wear his jersey to the park, Robinson did not play coy.

"It thrills me," he said.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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