THE VACUUM MEETS NEW YORK'S TEAM OF DESTINY
Shortly before the start of the World Series last Saturday afternoon Donn Clendenon of the New York Mets introduced one of his teammates, rookie Outfielder Rod Gaspar, to an old friend, Frank Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles. It was a historic meeting. Five days earlier Robinson had stepped onto a folding chair, squirted a spray of champagne to attract attention and announced to the Orioles, "Ron Gaspar just said on television that the Mets will sweep the Birds in four games. Bring on Ron Gaspar, whoever the hell he is. Quiet! I'm told that his name is Rod Gaspar. Bring on Rod Gaspar, whoever the hell he is." Now, thanks to Clendenon, Frank Robinson knows who Rod Gaspar is.
Clendenon neglected to introduce Gaspar to Baltimore's other Robinson, so Brooks introduced himself a bit later, rather rudely, too. It happened in the top half of the seventh inning (see cover), as the Orioles were leading the Mets 4-1. The Mets had just scored their run and had men at first and second with two out. Gaspar, pinch-hitting, faced Mike Cuellar, who had already thrown more than 100 pitches and seemed to be tiring rapidly.
Gaspar topped a ball toward third base. Cuellar took one look at what was obviously one of those stinking, scratch infield hits and grimaced. This, he knew, would load the bases and send him to an early shower. Gaspar, too, heading for first base, knew that he had a hit. But Brooks Robinson, as usual playing a shallow third base—shallower than most other third basemen ever dare, particularly in a situation like this with two outs and a force play at all bases—was not that convinced. He charged the ball.
October 19, 1969
"When I go after a ball," he said, "I always think I can get the out." Moving in quickly, he reached down for the ball just as it stopped on the grass. "The trick here is to have your left foot ahead of your right foot when you bend for the ball," he said. "Otherwise you come up off balance and throw the ball away. A lot of third basemen do that."
Not Robinson. In one motion he stabbed the ball, raised his right arm high and fired an overhand strike to First Baseman Boog Powell. The play, amazingly, was not even close. Gaspar, who is not all that slow, was out by two steps.
"That wouldn't have happened to me," Clendenon said after the Mets' 4-1 defeat. "I'm not hitting the ball to Robinson in this Series. He's the vacuum cleaner, don't you know that? I'm hitting it out toward center. Like I did today. Got two hits that way. You don't get any hits going toward third base."
On Sunday it was Brooks Robinson challenging the Mets once again. Early in the game, he made a video tape replay of his Gaspar spectacular and threw out Jerry Grote. Obviously that play told the Mets they needed a better game plan, Clendenon's, for instance, for they hit only one more ball to Robinson the rest of the day. On that occasion Robinson cut in front of Shortstop Mark Belanger to throw out Bud Harrelson—making a difficult play look routine. In the fourth inning Clendenon hit a home run over the right-field wall—at least 310 feet away from Robinson at third base. It started Jerry Koosman to a 2-1 victory that sent the Series to New York tied at one game apiece.
Koosman skillfully protected the lead as he pitched no-hit baseball until Paul Blair led off the Oriole seventh with a single into left field. With two outs and Brooks at bat, Blair stole second—setting up the potential tying run. Brooks immediately delivered Blair with a single into center field. "I remembered Koosman from the All-Star Game this year," Brooks said. "He struck me out then on three pitches. I didn't want that to happen again."
The Met who really killed the Orioles on Sunday, though, was not Koosman but another one of Frank Robinson's old friends. In the summer of 1967 Frank slid hard into second base one night as he tried to break up a double play in a game against the Chicago White Sox. He crashed into Al Weis, who was making the pivot, and both players rolled painfully on the ground. Weis ruined his knee and did not play for the rest of the year. He says now that the injury persuaded the White Sox to trade him to the Mets that winter, a trade that hardly sent him into ecstasy. He had just bought a home in Chicago, for one thing, and, of course, the Mets were the Mets. Frank Robinson developed double vision and it was not until almost a year later that he began to hit the baseball again as he once had.
Recently Met Manager Gil Hodges has platooned Weis at second base with left-handed hitter Ken Boswell. Even though Weis batted only .215 this year, Hodges has great confidence in him. He permitted Weis to bat in a crucial situation in a game against the Chicago Cubs in July and Weis hit his first home run in a year to beat the Cubs. Against the Orioles on Sunday Weis came to bat with two out in the top of the ninth, runners at first and third and the score tied 1-1. Choking up on the bat handle he lined Dave McNally's first pitch over shortstop to drive in Ed Charles with the winning run. "Imagine that," Weis said. "I thought I might help win a Series game with my glove. I never thought I would win one with my bat."
Koosman overpowered the Orioles until the ninth when, after two were out, he walked Frank Robinson and Boog Powell. This brought Brooks to the plate again, but for once he did not produce a miracle. Ron Taylor, in relief of Koosman, got him on a hot grounder to third to end the tense game.
Even with the loss, for Brooks Robinson and the Orioles the weekend was something of a success. Among other things, it relieved any number of frustrations and soothed several tempers.
In fact, all Baltimore had been working up a good mad-on against New York for quite awhile. It was not the Mets they were angry with, although Rod Gaspar was not winning any popularity polls. But Brooks and his friends had this vendetta against the fun-city syndrome—New York, money, publicity, endorsements, politicians, the Jets beating the Colts, the Knicks beating the Bullets, and finally that thing people have been referring to over and over again as the Mets' mystique. "I think," Brooks said, "you could say that Baltimore and the Orioles both have been overlooked pretty much by the people in New York."
The Orioles were less than amused when they read that the governor of New York had poured cocktails for the Mets in his Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park. They seldom cheered when they saw the Mets' pitchers in a particular hair-tonic commercial. They burned when Frank Robinson was introduced on The Johnny Carson Show as "Frank Robinson of the Baltimore Colts." And they burned some more when Robinson was practically ignored on the Carson show while Tom Seaver of the Mets was treated like Bob Hope.
Most of all, though, they resented all that imported foolishness about the Mets being a "team of destiny" in the World Series. "The Mets haven't got any patent on The Man," snarled Earl Weaver, the Baltimore manager. "The Man looked down on us, too—109 times this year, nine times more than the Mets. We must've had some desire."
Frank Lane, the great trader who now works in the Oriole front office, did admit shortly before the Series began that he considered the Mets a team of destiny even if his co-workers did not. "The Mets," he said, "are destined to finish second in this Series."
Every time the New York syndrome mentioned the six "great" pitchers on the Met staff, all of whom the syndrome will enshrine in Cooperstown next week, Weaver countered with a stream of nonos, followed by, "We've got 10 great pitchers on this staff. Who in hell do these people think we are, anyway?"
Well, who are the Orioles, anyway? For a start, there is Brooks Robinson, whom the players call "Head," because his hairline seems to recede another inch every day. They could just as readily have called him Head because he always seems to be using his. Invariably in the right position at the right time, he is, simply, the best third baseman in baseball, and he may be the best who ever played the position. He is the strong, silent type, the solid man on a very solid club who leads Baltimore with his performances—not his mouth. As George Kell, a superior third baseman himself not too many years ago, said last week, "If Brooksie had played in New York all these years, he'd already be in the Hall of Fame."
Brooks Robinson came out of Little Rock, Ark. as an 18-year-old with the fastest hands in the Southwest, and today he still wears cowboy boots. "Baseball is the only thing I have ever done in my life," he says, "and it is the only thing I have ever loved." For a long time Robinson expected that he would return to Arkansas when he was through playing. But now he has settled in Baltimore and established himself as one of the community's leading citizens. He raises funds for charities and is the most popular after-dinner speaker in the area. "I learned after a few years of public speaking that the best way to capture an audience is to make yourself the butt of the joke," he says. Robinson has an interest in a Baltimore restaurant but happily he does not plan to be a Toots Shor when he quits baseball "eight or nine years" from now. He does not want to manage or coach—that would not be consistent with his character—and he feels he would be happiest working full time at the sporting goods store that he owns in Baltimore.
Two nights before the Series began he sat down in the family room of his home in Lutherville, Md., a Baltimore suburb about 15 minutes from third base at Memorial Stadium, and gave the singular reason why he thought the Orioles were a super baseball team, not just a team of superstars.
"I can laugh at myself, Frank can laugh at himself, we can all laugh at each other," he said.
This season, though, was a drag for Brooks. He slumped to a miserable .234 batting average, the fourth consecutive year in which his average has fallen off, but he did hit 23 home runs, drive in 84 runs and his play around third base never slacked off. Now, as he looked around the room at the nine Golden Gloves, the MVP trophy and the 79 other trophies and plaques and pieces of memorabilia that he has collected, Robinson said that the 1969 season did not excite him. "The kind of year we had," he said, "is responsible for the kind of year I had. How many important games did the Orioles play all year? The batting average was discouraging, and perhaps this is a time when I should be saying, 'Gee, maybe I can't hit .280 anymore.' But that's not how I feel. I simply was lazy all year, and I can't excuse myself for it."
The challenge and the excitement of the first American League playoff woke Robinson fast enough. He hit .500—seven hits in 14 at bats—as the Orioles won three straight from the Twins, and it was a typically sensational Robinson play at third base in the first inning of the third game that totally destroyed any momentum the Twins were trying to build after losing the first two games. He speared a terrific smash by Rod Carew and probably saved two runs.
The Orioles partied for a short time in their clubhouse after defeating the Twins, but Robinson was not among the revelers. Instead, he was submerged in the whirlpool bath, away from the champagne squirting and the kangaroo court. "Brooks takes care of himself," said Pete Richert, the relief pitcher. "Don't get me wrong. He's not an individual around here. It's just that he knows what he's got to do to keep in shape. If he has to take a whirlpool instead of champagne, then he takes a whirlpool."
All year long Robinson contributed perhaps more money to the club's kangaroo court than any other Oriole. "Every day Brooks would make the first motion to adjourn the court so he could go home," said McNally, "and right off the judge [Frank Robinson] would fine him for contempt of court. When Brooksie wants to go home, he wants to go home."
Then, on the eve of his second World Series (he hit a home run and fielded flawlessly as the Orioles swept the Dodgers in 1966), Robinson was ready for the Mets. "I never worry about my fielding," he said. "I don't mean to brag, but the Mets know, I think, that I can field. At bat, I just want to get some top hand into my swing. I've been pulling away from the ball, not hitting it, and I've got to concentrate on that."
Robinson respected the Mets. "We're superior on defense, I know that," he said. "But you know, they might never have to make a tough defensive play in the Series. And they're New York, remember that. Playing the Mets and beating them will do more for our name than if we beat some other team. They're New York."
Well, after the first two games, the Mets were still New York (they were, quite obviously, still the Mets, too) and the Orioles were still the Orioles and Brooks Robinson was still Brooks Robinson.
14 Gil Hodges, Uncle Sam
43 Jim McAndrew, Tom Sawyer
41 Tom Seaver, Huck Finn
20 Tommie Agee, John Henry
9 Wes Westrum, American Eagle
30 Nolan Ryan, Rough Rider
36 Jerry Koosman, Wyatt Earp
12 Ken Boswell, Johnny Appleseed
4 Ron Swoboda, Paul Bunyan
24 Art Shamsky, Geronimo
11 Wayne Garrett, Johnny Doughboy
27 Don Cardwell, Yankee Doodle
15 Jerry Grote, General Custer
3 Bud Harrelson, Buffalo Bill
Casey Stengel, Headless Horseman
Joan Payson, Betsy Ross