Brooks Robinson was crowding 40, but on that April night in 1977, his legions of fans were able to banish the depressing thought of his age from their minds. Robinson stood in front of his locker after the game, smiling. With a wink, he said, "The kid can still play."
The kid had one more home run in his bat, anyway. With the Orioles trailing the Cleveland Indians 5-3 in the bottom of the 10th inning, Robinson had hit a game-winning, three-run homer as a pinch hitter for Larry Harlow. It was his 268th and last.
During that final season, his farewell tour around the American League that would culminate with "Thanks, Brooks" Day on Sept. 18, Robinson was no longer a regular, and he spent most of his time in the clubhouse, knowing it was unlikely he would play.
"He hung out in the clubhouse in his underwear eating potato chips," pitcher Scott McGregor said. "When Earl [Weaver] wanted him to pinch hit or the public address announcer was calling him out to be applauded, we had to run back and tell him to throw his uniform on."
When Robinson was summoned to pinch hit against Dave LaRoche that night, many in the crowd of 4,826 were heading for the exits after the Indians scored three runs in the top of the 10th.
"I kept fouling off pitches, seven or eight of them, several just out of reach in the stands, close to being caught," said Robinson, who is celebrating his 58th birthday today. "I'm sure LaRoche had been told to throw as hard he could, figuring I couldn't catch up with his fastball late in my career. From all that swinging, I got arm-weary."
But then LaRoche made a costly mistake. Jim Palmer, who remembers these things, said LaRoche threw a curve. No. 268 dropped into the left-field stands, barely.
"Outside of our World Series wins, seeing Brooks fighting off those pitches to run the count to 3-and-2 and finally hitting a home run was one of my biggest thrills," Weaver said.
Five months later, Robinson wanted "Thanks, Brooks" Day to be no more than that -- thanks, no gifts. Any donations, he said, should go to the Johns Hopkins Hospital Children's Center. But people paid him no heed.
Owner Jerry Hoffberger gave him a car. Rawlings gave him replicas of his 16 Gold Gloves, because he had given all but two of the originals to Boys' Clubs and charities. And Doug DeCinces, his successor, gave him third base.
"I pulled the bag out and ran over and gave it to him and said, 'Hey, third base is always yours,' " said DeCinces, who hit a three-run homer in his first at-bat against the Boston Red Sox that day. "I was the unfortunate one who followed Brooks and got the wrath of the fans who said I could never replace him."
The only person who incurred the fans' wrath that day was American League president Lee Mac Phail, who was booed lustily before making a presentation to Robinson because he had upheld a forfeit against the Orioles.
"Earl had taken his team off the field in Toronto, complaining the field was hazardous," MacPhail said, referring to tarpaulins and mooring blocks adjacent to the left-field line. "The game was forfeited, and, as league president, I had to rule on it. As it happened, I made the ruling the day before Brooks' day.
"On the field for the ceremony, Chuck Thompson introduced me, and 50,000 fans booed. I stepped to the mike. More boos. I stepped back. I tried again. More boos. I didn't know what to do.
"Then out of the dugout came Weaver. He wasn't any happier about my ruling on the forfeit than the fans, but he put his arm around me and said into the mike, 'Don't boo this man.' The booing stopped, and I made the presentation."
It was a day, Palmer said, that was "a great occasion for everybody -- a time to relive all Brooks' great plays and hits." Weaver recalled that everyone was caught up in the emotion of the moment: "All that cheering, people so appreciative of Brooks, brought tears to the eyes and a certain feeling in the stomach."
Then, before the game, Weaver said it into the microphone for everyone:
"Thanks, Brooks. Thanks 1 million times."
Remembering the moment
"Nobody wanted to see his career end. That last home run put it out of people's minds for a while."
"Brooks never changed, despite all the attention. He was always so humble, signing autographs with a smile."
-pitching coach George Bamberger
"I can almost feel Brooks' presence when I stand where he stood." -Cal Ripken Jr.
"Let's face it, Baltimore loves Brooks Robinson." -William Donald Schaefer
"That day was real special. I had watched him all my life on TV, and I was awed just to be there." -Scott McGregor
"You could feel the emotion building. It was overwhelming to see a great player so appreciated for what he had done. I saw him make great plays when I played (1976-86), but older players would say, 'You should have seen him in the 1960s and early '70s.' " -Tippy Martinez