Cornerstone at third base

Brooks Robinson's peers believe his defense wasn't just one of the Orioles' defining characteristics.

His play at third base was the defining characteristic, they say.

"The Orioles were built on having great defense, and Brooks was the cornerstone," said Ron Hansen, who played shortstop alongside Robinson in the early 1960s.

Earl Weaver's tantrums and Cal Ripken's streak also became symbols of the franchise, but nothing over the decades ranks ahead of Robinson's defense.

"That's the Baltimore Orioles right there," said George Kell, a Hall of Famer who tutored Robinson in the 1950s.

Robinson smiled recently when he heard Kell's comment.

"I loved playing the field," he said. "It sounds simple, but I enjoyed catching the ball."

He is widely regarded as the best third baseman ever, and though defensive masterwork can be hard to quantify, his 16 Gold Glove awards, won consecutively, make the point. No other player in major league history has won more. (Pitcher Jim Kaat also won 16 straight.)

"Is Brooks the best ever at third? No doubt about it," Kell, 81, said from his Clifton, Ark., home.

Most fans associate Robinson's prowess with the 1970 World Series, when he discouraged the Cincinnati Reds with a series of seemingly impossible plays and was named the series' Most Valuable Player after the Orioles' championship.

"But we kind of laughed at the fuss everyone made," said Dick Hall, an Orioles reliever that year. "We'd seen him make those kinds of plays for years."

Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks still remembers his first "Brooks moment." The team was in Oakland for the 1968 season opener. Hendricks was a rookie catcher, fresh from the Mexican League. Robinson was 30, in his prime.

Early in the game, Oakland's fleet Bert Campaneris pushed a bunt between the mound and third as a runner on first sprinted for second.

"Where I'd come [See Orioles, 3c] [Orioles, from Page 1c] from, that was a hit," Hendricks recalled. "Brooks was on it instantly, and without even looking, threw to second for a force. Then there was a throw to first, double play, inning over in half a second.

"I was sitting in the bullpen and my mouth fell open. I went, 'You've got to be kidding me. I don't believe what I just saw.'"

His veteran bullpen mates just shrugged.

In some respects, Robinson wasn't destined for defensive greatness. His arm wasn't that strong. His body wasn't chiseled. He lacked speed.

But his hands were fast and sure, enabling him to catch balls and get rid of them in a blink.

And his first steps were as quick as an All-Star hockey goalie's.

"He got to the ball, caught it and got rid of it faster than anyone," Hall said. "He had a combination of talents that were perfect for the position."

Was there a secret to his success? Robinson has an explanation.

"Hand-eye coordination, for sure," he said. "That was a God-given talent, and I had it."

He spent "countless hours" as a youngster throwing a golf ball or a tennis ball against the steps of his house in Little Rock, Ark., and "I always caught it," he said.

He also had a natural instinct for the ball - in every sport.

"I was a great rebounder in basketball, just had that knack for going up when the ball was coming down," Robinson said. "It didn't matter what sport: I was always around the ball."

Oddly, though he was a right-handed fielder and batter, he did almost everything else left-handed - ate, wrote, played tennis. Hall said that gave him an advantage.

"He had his glove on his strongest hand, unlike most fielders," Hall said.

'No one worked harder'

He also worked hard, refusing to take his success for granted.

"Major league infielders make it look easy," Hall said, "but that's misleading. It takes a lot of hard work to be that good. And no one worked harder than Brooks."

After spring training workouts in Miami, he headed to a small field adjacent to Bobby Maduro Stadium and took extra balls.

"He worked on charging bunts and picking them up," Hall said. "He thought it was a shortcoming. But he eventually became known as the best of anyone who did it."

During the season, Orioles coach Billy Hunter hit him hundreds of ground balls before every game. Then his peerless power of concentration - another key to his success - took over when the game began.

"Concentration is such an important aspect of baseball," Robinson said. "When there are 30 seconds between pitches, your mind has time to wander. You really have to fight that.

"One time in Kansas City, I looked down and noticed I was wearing a mismatched pair of cleats. Then the ball was hit and I didn't get it. I said, 'You should have had that.' But I wasn't concentrating."

That seldom happened.

"Before every pitch for years and years, he was on his toes, ready to move, instantly alert," Hall said. "He always got ready as if he knew the ball was coming to him. Whenever a new guy would join the bullpen, he'd watch Brooks for a game or two and say, 'Holy cow, he's as good as they say.' We'd say, 'Just watch him. He treats every pitch like there are two outs in the ninth.'"

The Orioles signed Robinson as a second baseman in 1955. He was adept enough with his glove to play in the major leagues, but the Orioles assigned him to York, Pa.

Robinson played second for his first 50 games in York. He was moved to third halfway through the 1955 season by York manager George Staller, a future Orioles coach, and Paul Richards, the Orioles' manager and general manager.

"They moved me because they saw me as having quick reflexes, and third base is a reflex position," Robinson said. "That was the best thing that ever happened to me."

The next spring, Orioles coach Al Vincent helped with some tenets of infield play.

"Al said, 'The one thing I want you to do is get your glove down a little sooner,'" Robinson said. "Some later guys like [Detroit Tigers shortstop] Alan Trammell and [Orioles shortstop] Mark Belanger were really good at that. As soon as they had a line on that ball, the glove went all the way to the ground to be ready. Vincent really helped me there."

In spring 1957, after Richards thought he had detected a flaw in Robinson's backhand mechanics, the veteran Kell was told to correct it. Kell, who played for the Orioles at the end of his 15-year major league career, refused. He observed that Robinson hadn't missed a backhand ball in six weeks of spring training.

"He was already so good that there wasn't much I could tell him," Kell said.

Robinson became the Orioles' everyday third baseman in 1960 and won his first Gold Glove, emblematic of the league's defensive best at that position.

The next season, Hall arrived in a trade.

"The first time I was on the mound in a bunt situation, Brooks came over and quietly told me, 'You play toward first. I've got this side covered.' That was the only time a third baseman ever told me that," recalled Hall, who pitched for the Orioles in nine of his 16 major league seasons.

He could hit, too

Robinson's hitting lagged behind his fielding early in his career, but in 1964, at 27, he batted .317 with 28 home runs and 118 RBIs and was voted the American League's Most Valuable Player.

"At first, I wasn't sure about his future as a hitter because he swung at a lot of high pitches, but he overcame that and became a force at the plate," Kell said.

Robinson ended up as a .267 career hitter with 268 home runs, solid numbers. But he was always known best for his defense.

"It was fun because overall we had some of the best defensive teams ever," he said. "We had [Luis] Aparicio and Belanger at shortstop, [Paul] Blair in center field, me at third. [Bobby] Grich was the best I'd ever seen at second for three or four years. Where were you going to hit it?"

Belanger subtly communicated with Robinson to help him make plays. Whenever the catcher called for Jim Palmer or Mike Cuellar to throw a curve, the shortstop alerted Robinson.

"He'd say, 'Be alive, Brooks,' which was a signal," Robinson said. "I'd know a big, slow hook was coming."

He would then cheat toward the foul line, knowing hitters were more likely to swing early and pull the pitch.

Nation, Reds get glimpse

The 1970 Series was his career high point. He committed an error on his first chance, then made a series of spectacular plays.

When the Reds' Lee May hit a hard bouncer over the third base bag in Game 1, Robinson crossed into foul ground to grab it, then threw blindly across his body toward first base. The throw beat May by half a step.

In Game 3, he dived headlong into the hole to catch a line drive off the bat of Johnny Bench. Then, he caught a line drive by Bench in foul territory in the ninth inning of Game 5, seemingly knowing where the ball was headed before it was hit.

"I played almost 23 years professionally, and I don't think I ever had five games in a row like that in terms of chances to make good plays," Robinson said. "It just doesn't happen that way. At third base, you can play every day for a week without even getting a ground ball, much less a tough play. It all came my way that week."

Robinson's hitting tailed off in the 1970s, but not his defense. He won six more Gold Glove awards before retiring in 1977.

He still resides in Maryland, and appeared last month at Opening Night with other famous Orioles to mark the 50th anniversary.

Robinson was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1983. His friend and longtime opponent, Detroit's Al Kaline, had been inducted into the Hall three years earlier. Today, they're de facto baseball ambassadors who travel a circuit of card shows, dinners, fantasy camps and golf tournaments.

"Whenever Al introduces me, he says, 'Well, this guy cost me about 20 points on my career batting average,'" Robinson said. "I don't know. I was just trying to catch the ball."

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