By Don Mohler
The writer is the former Baltimore County executive and is president and CEO of Mohler Communication Strategies. He can be reached at [email protected].
Dear Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, and you too, Jackson Holliday,
It’s just been a few days since we lost a giant, Brooks Calbert Robinson Jr. As you guys know, Brooksie was the greatest Oriole of all time, and the greatest third baseman in baseball history. You met Brooks. You saw firsthand what kind of man he was. And yes, he sets a high bar for the next great Baltimore Orioles. That would be the three of you.
Adley and Gunnar, you are new to Birdland, but we already love you. And we think you love us. The Orioles were 16-24 when you arrived on May 21, 2022, Adley. But from that first at bat when you looked around Camden Yards to soak in the moment, the sky’s been the limit. We went 67-55 the rest of the way last season, and heck, we are about the clinch the American League East for crying out loud.
Gunnar, every time broadcaster Ben McDonald shouts, “Come on, Kid,” we all get goosebumps. And Jackson, you are just a year removed from Stillwater High School in Oklahoma and have yet to set foot in Camden Yards. But like Dorothy said to the Scarecrow, when all is said and done, we may “love you most of all.” Fellas, I can’t wait.
Now, what does all of this have to do with Brooks? It has everything to do with Number 5. But it won’t be because of his accomplishments on the field, which are legendary. You know the record: 23 seasons with the same team, 16 consecutive Gold Gloves, and of course, American League and World Series MVP awards.
But let’s focus on Brooks’ character and commitment to community. You see, guys, that’s what made the Human Vacuum Cleaner so beloved. That is why people all across the state broke down and cried at the news of his passing. My goodness, even the stoic Jim Palmer couldn’t keep it together on air. Everyone knew Brooks, or it sure felt that way.
Here are just a couple of personal examples:
I was privileged to attend “Thanks, Brooks Day” on Sept. 18, 1977, and I cried like a baby when Brooksie led former Orioles out of the dugout at the last game at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 6, 1991. When he patted his glove and moved the dirt around with his toe, there was not a dry eye on 33rd Street. I hugged every single person I could get to that sunny afternoon 32 years ago. Thanks to my son Jeff, I was able to cry yet again when the Orioles celebrated the 45th anniversary of Brooks’ retirement on Sept. 24, 2022. Each of these events is etched in my memory.
When Brooks passed, journalist Roy Firestone remembered a young kid from Little Rock, Arkansas who had never been around African Americans. In 1965, the Orioles traded for Frank Robinson, one of the best trades in the history of the franchise. Brooks was appalled that Frank could not purchase a home in segregated Baltimore and helped him break that barrier.
Frank and Brooks became lifelong friends, with Brooks often saying, “We were a good team before Frank. He made us great and taught us how to win.” The Hall of Famer had no ego and was more than happy to have another superstar aboard to help the Orioles get to the top.
And then there’s this: There was a young man in Catonsville who idolized Brooks while growing up. Like so many others, he named his son after him. Unfortunately, this young man was stricken by a rare virus that debilitated his body and took away his sight. The family reached out to Brooks to share the story. Before you knew it, Brooks was in the hospital, not for a minute but for an extended visit.
A short while later, I ran into him at lunch. I walked over and introduced myself just to say thanks for what he had done. As I started to walk away, Brooks said, “Don, wait a minute. Thanks for sharing that. How’s he doing? I really hope he is better, and I need to get back to the hospital.” There wasn’t an ounce of phony in the man.
On another occasion, then-Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith (D) named a road to honor Brooks. Near Park Heights Avenue you can drive on Brooks Robinson Way. The road was blocked at both ends, and rather than be escorted to the ceremony site, Brooks parked at the end of the road like everyone else before making his way toward the podium.
A young police officer stopped Brooks as he tried to enter and said, “I’m sorry sir, but this is a private event. They are naming this road for someone named Brooks Robinson today.” Now you can imagine how many Hall of Famers might have handled this moment. Brooks simply laughed and thanked the young officer for his good work and said, “I think I’m allowed in, I’m Brooks Robinson.” It was vintage Brooks. He was never about to “big time” anyone. He was one of us.
The other night, after the Orioles game on the night Brooks passed, my wife and I were in the car for about an hour. We listened nonstop to fans calling into WBAL to share their Brooks stories. And guess what? Not one of the stories was about his baseball prowess. Every story was about a human interaction with our hero. There was the guy who called in to say that he worked in a gas station that Brooks and Connie used to frequent. He said Brooks knew that he and the other workers would be there on Christmas Day, instead of celebrating at home with their families. Imagine their surprise when the Robinson family showed up with Christmas dinner for everyone at the station. There was no press, there was no hoopla, just a nice family bringing some Christmas cheer to the guys who pumped their gas.
There was the reporter talking about one of his first assignments, which was to interview Brooks in Hagerstown at a special promotion for the Hagerstown Suns. The game was rained out, but Brooks still showed up. As a result of the rainout, the reporter was the only one there, and he sat mesmerized by Brooks for 30 minutes.
As the half hour came to a close, the young man realized that he had forgotten to turn on his tape recorder. He politely told Brooks how much he appreciated his time and that he would just tell his boss that he made a mistake. Of course, Brooks would have none of that. He sat down for another 10 minutes to make sure the young man could fulfill his assignment. Brooks thought everyone was family, and family doesn’t let family down.
There are thousands of these stories.
‘Do you think we could do this again?’
On a personal note, thanks to Ron Shapiro, Brooks’ longtime friend and confidant, I was able to share some special moments with my childhood idol. Ron invited me to lunch one day at The Valley Inn with Brooks. It was the first of several magical encounters. Throughout lunch, fan after fan came over to the table to tell Brooks how much they loved him. He never flinched and never, even for a moment, appeared annoyed. He thanked each and every person for coming over to say hi. It’s probably why they say Brooks’ autograph isn’t worth very much. He signed for everyone, no matter how long it took. Not worth much? In fact, it is priceless.
As Ron drove away that day, Brooks and I were still chatting in the parking lot. I will never forget his words. He said, “Don, this was really fun. Do you think we could do it again?” All of a sudden, I was 8 years old and speechless. “Sure, Brooks. I’m pretty sure I can fit that in,” I joked. Magical. Magical. Magical.
And, of course, there is the famous Associated Press sportswriter, Gordon Beard, who wrote, “Brooks never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him. In Baltimore, they name their children after him.” We have a Brooks in our family, and in 2020, 43 years after Brooks played his last game, a young man who used to work with me named his first-born son, Brooks Joseph Flynn. That’s what legacy looks like.
So Adley, Gunnar, and Jackson, think about this: In just a few short years you will reach free agency. You can choose to remain in Baltimore for an entire career, perhaps at a hometown discount, or you can wander off to New York or Los Angeles in search of the golden ticket. When you get to that moment, I hope you will ponder the outpouring of love on display in our city and in our state over the past few days.
Ask yourself the following question: Do I want to be Brooks Robinson, or do I want to be just another player on the endless carousel? Ask yourself, what really matters in life. Please pay close attention over the next week or two. Soak it up and never forget what you are seeing.
And in years to come, who knows, people just might name their children Adley, or Gunnar or Jackson. Wouldn’t that be nice?