Brooks Robinson: The Greatest Defensive Player in Baseball History, at Any Position (4 of 7)

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Game 3

The Orioles are carrying a 16-game winning streak into Game 3: They won their final 11 regular-season games, swept the Twins in 3 games in the ALCS, and have won the first 2 games against the Reds.

Announcing Game 3, now in Memorial Stadium, will be Gowdy and Kubek from NBC, along with Orioles’ broadcaster Chuck ThompsonScreenshot 2017-12-23 at 13.17.35.png

Tony Kubek interviews the legendary Sandy Koufax, who astutely points out that the Reds haven’t tested catcher Elrod Hendricks, who is coming off of a broken finger and is having trouble throwing – he also advises pitching around Boog Powell. Since 1966, Koufax has witnessed the Orioles winning 6 consecutive World Series games, as his own team got swept in 1966, 4-0. – Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 13.20.08.png

“Batting sixth today is Brooks Robinson” – Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 13.28.36.png

“And the rockets red glare ….”Joseph Eubanks (who also sang in 1966 and 1979) Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 13.32.58.png

Throwing out the first ball is the legendary Lefty Grove (center)Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 13.34.21.png

Gowdy: “And you’ve heard of this man, #5, Brooks Robinson, the Oriole 3rd baseman.” – Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 13.36.57.png

Top of the 1st, 0-0, none out, runner on 1st, Bobby Tolan at bat, 0-0 count – The stubborn Tolan bunts down 3rd after Pete Rose hits a leadoff single, creating an almost-identical situation to what happened in Game 2 when Robinson let the bunt roll foul. On the natural grass at Memorial Stadium, however, a helpless Robinson is reduced to watching the ball roll, and roll, and stop in fair territory – an absolutely perfect bunt single by Tolan. Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 13.42.06.pngYou know what? The more-and-more I study this video, I’m convinced that the ball *was* rolling foul, and then hit a pebble, or a ridge in the dirt, which made it hop up into the air, and veer back onto the grass. You’ll need to watch the slow-motion replay several times to convince yourself of this, but that ball hit something to make it jump up and change course. Video of the play.

Top of the 1st, 0-0, none out, runner on 1st and 2nd, Tony Perez at bat, 2-0 count – Perez hits a hard ground ball to Robinson, about eight feet off of 3rd base. Robinson, who on the previous play had to suffer through Tolan’s bunt, fields the ball, runs over to step on 3rd base, and then fires to Powell for a double-play. For Robinson to have the presence-of-mind to run over to 3rd, knowing full well that Rose would be barreling down the line, and then launch a perfect strike to 1st base, was remarkable, and you have to think the mighty Reds (and they *were* mighty) were getting a little annoyed by now. Gowdy: “Brooks Robinson – the Reds say they could bar him, he’s illegal. He’s been the difference in the Series, I think, Chuck.” Thompson: “I think that’s quite obvious, and among other things he’s been called – illegal – they refer to him as ‘The Human Vacuum Cleaner.'” Note: Robinson is credited for two Chances, a Putout, an Assist, and a Double-Play on this one batted ball. Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 13.46.55.png Video of the play.

Top of the 1st, 0-0, 2 out, runner on 2nd, Johnny Bench at bat, 2-0 count – Bench positively rips a line drive down 3rd – possibly the hardest-hit ball of the Series thus far – but it was right at Robinson, who dropped to his knees and made the catch, retiring the side. You don’t see this play replayed often, but this was not a routine putout, but just like Robinson’s very first putout of the Series in Game 1, he merely flipped the ball to the pitcher’s mound, and ran off the field like it was no big deal, despite it being something of a miracle that the Reds didn’t score this inning. Screenshot 2017-12-23 at 13.54.53.png Video of the play.

Top of the 2nd. The sound went out on the broadcast, and NBC (or maybe it was the local affiliate) chose, of all things, to play Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys” as background music – Interestingly, this is the second time in the Series that Powell’s moment at the plate was tainted – in Game 2, he had a home run lost to the box score when NBC cut away for a News Update of the October Crisis. Video of the moment.

Bottom of the 2nd, 0-0, 2 out, runner on 1st and 3rd, Frank Robinson at bat, 2-1 count – Brooks Robinson in the on-deck circle. Gowdy: “Brooks Robinson’s on-deck.” Screenshot 2017-12-24 at 00.11.58.png “He may not get up this inning; when he does get up, Chuck, I bet he’ll get an ovation here.” Thompson, “Uh, that’s not just for his performance in the World Series either, Curt – he’s been the most popular Oriole ever to wear the uniform – and what a favor Paul Richards did baseball when he decided this man would not make it as the 2nd baseman, he’d better try 3rd.” Gowdy: “Right. He couldn’t cover enough ground for <indeciperable> at 2nd – too slow, he said.” Thompson: “He’s right.” [if anyone can make out these indecipherable (by me) words, please write and let me know]

Bottom of the 2nd, 0-0, 2 out, bases loaded, Brooks Robinson at-bat,1-1 count – Gowdy [upon Robinson stepping up to the plate]: “Here’s Brooks Robinson – listen to the hand for him! Brooks Robinson – I don’t know how a player can be as big a star as he is, and so nice. That’s what’s really marvelous about Robinson, is his personality off the field, and his character.” Robinson hits a sharp line drive into the left-field gap, driving in 2 runs with a bases-loaded double. Screenshot 2017-12-24 at 00.26.11.png Into 2nd goes Brooks Robinson, and the Orioles lead, 2-0. For the third-straight game, Robinson has hit a game-tying, go-ahead, or game-winning RBI. Screenshot 2017-12-24 at 00.26.56.png Gowdy: “Robinson not only makes clutch plays in the field, but he gets many big hits for the Orioles. Well, he now has tied Boog Powell and Lee May for the most RBIs in this series – he has four.” Video of the play.

Top of the 3rd, Orioles leading 2-0, 1 out, runner on 1st, Tony Perez at bat, 1-2 count – Watch this play closely, as it epitomizes the seemingly “insignificant” things Robinson does that, in reality, are all the difference between “good, “great,” and “the best who ever lived.” McRae hits a topspin chopper toward 3rd base – you can tell from Robinson’s immediate reaction (running towards 3rd base) that he was going to let the ball bounce precisely three times, instead of charging it and fielding it after two bounces. It’s hard to see the ball in this photo, Screenshot 2017-12-24 at 00.35.47.png but it’s taking its third bounce precisely on the corner of the grass, and in the process, takes a pretty bad hop, becoming skewed to Robinson’s right – Robinson adjusts, and with one, quick, whipping motion, throws out Perez by a half-step. Robinson couldn’t have been waiting to see if the ball would land foul (could he have?); instead, he seemed to “know” that he’d have j-u-s-t enough time to get Perez – I’m still not quite sure why he didn’t charge the ball and take it on the second bounce, but this was an exceedingly treacherous play, and Perez wasn’t out by much. Screenshot 2017-12-24 at 00.39.53.png Gowdy: “I’ll tell ya, it’s just worth the ticket to come in and watch him play.” It’s the second slow-motion replay that clearly shows Robinson intended to wait for the third bounce, and also clearly shows the bad hop the ball took. Video of the play. I suspect we’ll never know why Robinson waited for the third bounce (if someone reads this who knows him, could you ask?) – you may need to watch the video 4-5 times to see just how bad of a bounce the ball took.

Top of the 4th, Orioles leading 2-1, none out, none on, Pete Rose at bat, 2-1 count – Special recognition here for Gold Glove second baseman Dave Johnson, who made an extraordinary, diving catch to his right off a hard liner by Rose. This is highlight-reel material, and well-worth watching – the catch made Gowdy scream. Screenshot 2017-12-24 at 00.48.47.png Video of the play

Bottom of the 4th, Orioles leading 2-1, 2 out, none on, Frank Robinson at bat, 0-0 count – I feel guilty about not highlighting the other home runs in this series, but how often do you see two Hall of Famers in the batting area, followed by a blistering home run (when Robinson retired, he was #4 in history behind Aaron, Ruth, and Mays) – not too shabby.  And look who’s in the on-deck circle to congratulate his friend: a third Hall of Famer. Screenshot 2017-12-24 at 00.57.19.png Video of the play.

Top of the 5th, Orioles leading 3-1, none out, none on, Lee May at bat, 1-1 count – There are a lot of hard-hit, topped grounders in this series, and May hits another one to Robinson at 3rd, which is fielded fairly routinely, and Robinson throws May out at 1st. Screenshot 2017-12-28 at 23.23.35.png Video of the play.

Tony Kubek interviews Orioles’ batboy, Jay Mazzone.Screenshot 2017-12-28 at 23.30.32.png Video of the interview.

Bottom of the 5th, Orioles leading 4-1, none out, none on, Brooks Robinson at bat, 0-0 count – Robinson again jumps on the first pitch, and again hits a hard, topspin grounder, resulting in a routine play by Tony Perez at 3rd (it’s as if the 3rd basemen have it in for each other (actually, the pitchers, on both teams, are throwing curves down-and-in to right-handed hitters, tempting them to pull the ball towards 3rd base). Perez easily throws out Robinson at 1st base – it should be noted that the underrated (and excellent) Perez is playing an outstanding World Series. Screenshot 2017-12-28 at 23.36.28.pngScreenshot 2017-12-28 at 23.36.38.png Video of the play.

Tony Kubek interviews the President of the American League, Joe CroninScreenshot 2017-12-28 at 23.44.51.png Kubek: “Joe, this Baltimore infield has got to be one of the best you’ve ever seen.” Cronin: “Oh, I should say – the 3rd baseman’s one of the greatest ever, the shortstop’s a fine defensive player, Davey Johnson’s <inaudible> 2nd baseman, and old Boog Powell, he catches ’em when he has to, too – he’s a pretty good hitter, too, isn’t he, Tony?” Video of the interview.

Top of the 7th, Orioles leading 4-1, 2 out, none on, Johnny Bench at bat, 2-1 count – This is another play you tell your grandchildren about, and in fact, this is the play that is the most reproduced photograph of Robinson’s career: The great Bench laced a line drive to the left of Robinson, who dove and caught the ball, horizontally, about a foot off the ground, then held up his mitt to the home-plate umpire, showing him that he’d caught the ball. This is the photo you all know: Screenshot 2017-12-29 at 00.09.57.pngScreenshot 2017-12-29 at 00.32.33.png Again, I cannot emphasize enough that this was a routine play for Robinson – he wasn’t holding up his glove to show off; he was holding up his glove as a courtesy to the home-plate umpire, to make his job easier – and notice also how he flips the ball back to the pitcher’s mound, and trots off the field, like what he did was no big deal, because to him, it wasn’t. An increasingly animated Gowdy: “Would you believe that? Well, this … this guy’s in another *world*! I mean he’s *unbelievable*!! Watch this play by Brooks Robinson. He says he goes to his left better – you’d have to believe him, although he made two great plays to his right. Look at that … the outstanding reflexes are what make a 3rd baseman, and he has them.” This is the type of play that modern, athletic 3rd basemen (Machado, Arenado, etc.) sometimes make, but back in 1970, people just didn’t do this, and nobody outside of Baltimore had ever seen it before on such a routine basis. This actually makes me a little sad, because if fate had not brought these plays into the national eye, people simply wouldn’t have known what Robinson had been doing for the past ten years – what other small-market teams had fantastic defensive players who remain unheralded? (To be perfectly frank, when I watch highlight films of Nolen Arenado, I see things that Robinson could never have done, and if there’s going to be an heir to the throne, it may well be Arenado – the thing is, he needs to keep this up for at least ten more years, and that’s going to be very difficult. Still, if you could take Arenado’s defensive statistics, and extend them for another 15 years, they’d look almost identical to Robinson’s – this guy is for real, and should Arenado be handed the crown one day, hopefully he’ll look back and respect that Robinson was doing similar defensive things fifty-years beforehand.) In 1960, Robinson won his first Gold Glove, led the American League in exactly one offensive category (double-plays grounded into), finished 3rd in the MVP voting after Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, was the only player named on all 24 MVP ballots, and the term “Mr. Impossible” was already in use. During the slow-motion replay, notice how Robinson never took his eye off the ball, and watched it all the way into his mitt (which ended up holding a scoop of vanilla ice-cream). At the top of the next inning, NBC showed it again – Gowdy: “Here it is again – Robinson poised and ready, ball hit like a bullet to him, and those instant reflexes – he’s not fast, but for a step or two, he’s outstanding.” Gowdy also points out that, [similar to the great tennis player, Rafael Nadal, who is a natural right-hander,] Robinson is a natural left-hander – he writes and eats with his left hand, which may explain some of the prowess with the mitt (although how does it explain his throwing accuracy?!) Worth noting for upcoming commentary: In 18 MLB seasons, shortstop Mark Belanger never dove for a single ball (shortstop and 3rd base require very different skill sets, the 3rd baseman playing shorter, needing quicker reflexes but less absolute side-to-side range, and having to throw farther both to 2nd and 1st base – shortstops get more Chances-per-game, and generally have higher fielding percentages, partly because they don’t need to catch point-blank bazooka shots). Video of the play.

Trivia – Think about the Orioles’ tradition of amazing shortstops: Aparicio, Belanger, Ripken, Tejada, Hardy, and soon-to-be Machado. Did you know there was *another* shortstop who was AL Rookie of the Year for the Orioles?

If you knew this, you’re better than I am: Ron Hansen in 1960 (!)

Kubek interviews Lefty Grove about Pie Traynor – Screenshot 2018-01-02 at 08.06.25.png Kubek: “Lefty, you saw Pie Traynor play, and you’re seeing Brooks Robinson – can you compare them?” Grove: “Well, Tony, I’d say there’s no comparison between the two of them – they’re both the same. You put ’em on the field, and they’ll balance it out even.” Kubek: “You saw one of the greatest plays of all-time just awhile ago, now we’ll go back upstairs – thank you, Lefty Grove.”



Lefty Grove’s comment means that it’s time to take a short break and dispense with the nonsense involving two things: When I was a child, I was forced to endure old-time baseball players and sports writers, who were clinging on to their era, comparing Brooks Robinson with Pie Traynor, and concluding Traynor was the best third baseman ever; today, I’m forced to endure younger sports writers, most of whom never even saw Robinson play, other than watching highlight films, comparing Brooks Robinson with Mike Schmidt, and concluding Schmidt was the best third baseman ever. Both of these comparisons are utter nonsense, and are based solely on offensive statistics, and their misguided opinions that offense is the trump card over defense when it comes to “being great.” Maybe, maybe not, but if you’re going to compare offensive players who were of similar quality to Robinson and his defense, you’re going to need to come up with better examples than Traynor and Schmidt; you’re going to need to put forth the names Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Ted Williams – the greatest hitters who ever lived – to compare with Robinson, the greatest defensive player who ever lived; anything less than that is doing Robinson a disservice.

We can end this right here if you wish: I freely admit that both Pie Traynor and Mike Schmidt were markedly superior to Brooks Robinson as offensive players, and if you value offense so highly that you feel it greatly outweighs defense, then yes, you’re perfectly justified in believing that Traynor and Schmidt were “better players who played third base.” Just don’t *ever* say they were “better third basemen.” To me, this is like saying that if the Yankees had stuck Babe Ruth at third base so they’d have an additional slugger in their lineup, then Ruth would have been the greatest third baseman of all-time – in other words, it’s ridiculous, and if that line of thinking appeals to you, it’s probably time to stop reading this, and go about your day.  (PS – Extending that logic, why doesn’t anyone consider Ruth the greatest pitcher of all-time?)

I’ll begin with Traynor, who played his entire 17-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. There can be no doubting Traynor’s offensive prowess: He had a .320 career batting average (need I even go on?). But let’s examine Traynor’s defense: He had a career .947 fielding percentage (compared to Robinson’s .971), which means his error rate was over twice as high. In 16 years playing 3rd base, he committed 23% more total errors  (324 vs. 263) than Robinson, who played 23 years until he was 40-years-old (need I even go on?). Traynor has fallen out of favor during the past generation, so I won’t spend my time picking him apart.

It’s Schmidt I’ll go after. People have the audacity to say that “if Schmidt had a high batting average, he’d be the greatest player who ever lived.” Well, if I was 8 feet tall, I’d be the greatest basketball player who ever lived. More to the point, if Schmidt wasn’t a power hitter, he wouldn’t even be in the Hall of Fame – that’s about how much sense that argument makes. It’s Schmidt’s power – and only Schmidt’s power – that makes people think he was the “greatest third baseman of all-time.” His lifetime batting average was .268, the exact same as Robinson’s. Robinson had more hits, more singles, more doubles, more triples, and almost 900 less strikeouts despite playing five-years longer. Let us also remember that Bob Gibson, and his 1.12 ERA in 1968, helped institute the standard that lowered the pitcher’s mound by up to 33.3%, from a maximum of 15 inches, to 10 inches – hitters received an enormous boost from this rule change. Still, due to Schmidt’s tremendous power, the consensus is that he was a far-superior hitter, and I won’t argue otherwise, but it isn’t quite as tidy a package as everyone says. Bear in mind also: Hitting has absolutely nothing to do with playing third base. In terms of defense: Spare me. “Ten gold gloves,” they say – one more than Don Mattingly and Torii Hunter, and one less than Keith Hernandez and Omar Vizquel, none of whom are in the Hall of Fame (though I expect we’ll see Vizquel there one day). There’s no doubt that Schmidt was a fine defensive third baseman, but he is currently sitting comfortably, tied at (ready for this?) #121 in all-time 3rd-baseman fielding percentage at .951. He made 50 more errors in 18 seasons than Robinson made in 23 (and don’t forget that seasons 19-23 were when Robinson was pushing 40-years-old, and the only reason there weren’t seasons 24 and 25 is because at the end of his career, he could barely even hit the ball into the outfield – he became the “King of the Short Fly Out” (note also that these exceedingly weak offensive statistics figure into his career averages)). I won’t even get into Robinson consistently robbing people of extra-base hits, which go into the statistics as a mere “Putout” or “Assist.” Mike Schmidt was a great athlete, and perhaps even a prototype for the modern third baseman; but there will never, ever be another Brooks Robinson, so he wasn’t a prototype for anything. Had the Platinum Glove existed back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Robinson might have won 16 of those in a row as well. To paraphrase Bill Walton talking about Larry Bird: Bird was out there playing chess; everyone else was playing checkers. Let’s end this here because despite appearances to the contrary, I really like Mike Schmidt, and think he was a *great* baseball player – a legitimate first-ballot Hall of Famer. Mr. Schmidt, I know you’re reading this: For whatever it’s worth, if I’d grown up in Philadelphia twenty-years later, I’d probably be writing a similar essay about you.


Bottom of the 6th, Orioles leading 4-1, 1 out, runner on 2nd, Brooks Robinson up, 0-0 count, Wayne Granger relieving Tony Cloninger – Once again, Robinson pounces on the first pitch (why do they keep throwing him first-pitch strikes?), and hits a hard liner into the left-field corner. As Paul Blair trots into 3rd base, Robinson takes advantage of the situation, races down to second, and is credited with his second double of the game. Screenshot 2018-01-02 at 08.42.12.pngScreenshot 2018-01-02 at 08.42.38.pngScreenshot 2018-01-02 at 08.44.11.png Video of the play.

Bottom of the 6th, Orioles leading 4-1, 2 out, bases loaded, Dave McNally up, 2-2 count – Just when you think you’ve seen it all, McNally becomes the first pitcher ever to hit a Grand Slam in a World Series game, scoring Robinson and two others. Even more amazing is that pitcher Mike Cuellar hit a Grand Slam in the ALCS just a few games before. Screenshot 2018-01-02 at 08.55.29.png Video of the play.

Bottom of the 7th, Orioles leading 9-3, 2 out, runner on 2nd, Brooks Robinson up, 0-0 count, Don Gullett relieving Wayne Granger – Brooks Robinson *again* swings at the first pitch, this time fouling out in shallow right field to Lee May. Screenshot 2018-01-02 at 11.23.32.png Video of the play.

Final Score: Orioles 9, Reds 3 – Box Score

Brooks Robinson’s Cumulative Statistics:
Slash Line: .333 / .333 / .750, OPS: 1.083, Hits: 4. Doubles: 2, HRs: 1, RBIs: 4, Runs: 2
Total Chances: 20, Putouts: 7, Assists: 12, Errors: 1, Double-Plays: 2, Fielding Percentage: .950

Continue to Part 5

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