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DAVIS: Here's to you, Mr. Robinson

March 19, 2012

For my generation of adults, nothing says spring louder and with more fanfare than the beginning of baseball season. In the 1960s, baseball was “the national pasttime” long before the Super Bowl became super and the NBA gained traction. For pure nostalgia, you can’t beat baseball.
I grew up during a time of such greats as Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron and too many more to mention. Baseball was indeed that magic thread that linked generations together. We watched games on our television in glorious standard definition black and white. The antennae perched atop the high pole fastened to the roof was properly angled to pull the signal from whichever one of the three channels we received was carrying the game that particular day. Instant replay had not come along so arguing one of the calls on the field became an art in and of itself. Much of the game was left to the imagination of the viewer which was much more exciting and second only to being at the game in person. The St. Louis Cardinals were the team of choice on Gibson Street.
But that all changed when Brooks Robinson came along; at least it did for me. Robinson was a home-state hero to me. He played third base for the Baltimore Orioles, the other bird mascot team. Brooks was tenacious. He guarded the third-base line with his body if needed and had the range to stab down any grounder headed between him and the shortstop. He did all of this with a small fielder’s glove and not the big baskets used these days. His arm was accurate and fast. This bode well for the Orioles as they had the “handy with a bat but not so nimble” Boog Powell at first base.
Robinson was nicknamed “The Vacuum Cleaner” because nothing got past him on the hot corner. He won the Golden Glove Award 16 consecutive years. He was named an All-Star for 15 consecutive years and won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1964.
With all these awards and a brilliant career, it might be surmised that this Baseball Hall of Fame member would have lost touch with his Little Rock, Ark. upbringing.
In 1988, I attended my first baseball card convention in Hot Springs. The reason I went was to meet the headliner, Brooks Robinson. I entered the convention room not knowing what to expect. On the stage at the far end of the room sat my childhood idol. He was signing autographs for those in line around the perimeter of the room. I took my place at the end and waiting my turn. I had brought with me my favorite Brooks Robinson baseball card I had pulled from a Tops package years before. In front of me was a man with a box of a dozen baseballs. He told me that after Mr. Robinson signed each one, I could come to his booth to buy one if I wanted. I thanked the gentleman, but showed him my card.
When my time came to present for an autograph, I handed Mr. Robinson my card. He took it from me and set it aside. He then looked me straight in the eye and asked me my name. I was momentarily taken aback that a player of his caliber would be interested in this simple man standing before him. I told him my name and that I was from Benton. He told me of people he knew from our fair city. We discussed baseball for a few moments. I told him I watched him as a kid and always pretended to be him when I played third base.
He smiled. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. I made Brooks Robinson smile. An act that transferred from his face to mine. Inside I felt like that 10-year old boy again and he looked like that rangy fielder ready to dive on whatever ball came his way. It is a moment I will never forget and take with me to my grave.
Then, he reached for the card I had handed him earlier. He signed his name and handed it back to me. He looked back up at me, put down his Sharpie and extended his hand. I reached my right hand to his and shook the hand of my baseball hero - the hand that played 23 seasons for the same team; that threw out 2,712 runners; that stood holding at bat 10,654 times facing down some of the greatest pitchers the game has ever known.
But none of those statistics mattered at the moment. As I shook his hand, Mr. Robinson said to me, “Thank you for coming to see me today.” Turns out he was just a guy like the rest of us in the huge room that day.
He understood that baseball is a game and he gave it all he had.
I walked from the table and found the booth of the vendor who had been in line with me. I bought an autographed ball and stand from him. A notch holds my prized card alongside as a reminder of the lesson in humility I learned that day.

Brent Davis is the managing editor of the Saline Courier. He can be reached at bdavis@bentoncourier.com.

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