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You Gotta Have Heart

Alumni legends bring baseball back to basics

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Gee, thanks, Brooks  Little leaguer meets living legend on the field of dreams
  • Gee, thanks, Brooks Little leaguer meets living legend on the field of dreams

It was testament to the power of baseball that on the day the Avalanche were going into battle in Game 7 for the Stanley Cup, 150 kids from Colorado Springs spent a Saturday soaking up knowledge, folklore and fundamental skills from the best teachers imaginable, veterans from the major leagues and Hall-of-Fame ball players; the best baseball has ever known.

So tempting was the free fantasy camp that Rockies second baseman Todd Walker trekked down from Denver, early on a game day morning, to stand beside icons like George Foster, Jimmy Wynn, Bert Campaneris and Hall-of-Famers Brooks Robinson and Robin Roberts. In all, a dozen major-leaguers set up stations spread out on the field at Sky Sox Stadium, running kids through drills to teach the often-overlooked fundamentals in the areas of throwing, batting, fielding, base running, glove work, pitching and bunting.

There were kids old enough to have delved into the game's legacy and appreciate the awe the assembled players struck in them. And there were tots so tiny it was hard to imagine they had ever held a bat before George Foster guided them to a balanced stance and a sweet swing. What I wouldn't give to be 9 years old and fielding grounders from Campy Campaneris. Or to make a decent pitch with a fluid delivery and hear Brooks Robinson, smiling encouragement behind me, saying, "Nice going there, Tiger."

Saturday's Legends for Youth Clinic was one of about 15 clinics offered each year, free to kids throughout the country, by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. Lucky for us, Colorado Springs is the headquarters for the organization. And its president is Brooks Robinson, the best third baseman to ever wear a uniform, and one of the great good-will ambassadors the game has known.

Robinson retains all the joy and wonder he's had since he was a kid, making the rounds on his paper route and putting "a little something extra" on the newspapers he threw to Yankee Hall-of-Famer Bill Dickey's house. He exudes character, the living embodiment of a life loving the game. He's too good to be true, an incomparable fielder, an intelligent analyst, an engaging conversationalist, and a man so warm and sincere that even his rivals couldn't resist him. That rarity in a class with Tony Gwynn, Walter Payton and Ray Bourque, invaluable men of character who elevate their games by their presence. He still looks like someone born to wear the uniform, to pull the cap down over his eyes, to toe the dirt in the infield, and more than anything, to put his hands on the shoulders of a wide-eyed kid wearing a baseball glove and share his joy.

The mission of MLBPAA is to promote baseball, get players re-involved in the game, portray a positive image to the youth of America, and to promote a youth baseball program. What's special is the fact that these alumni are the very ones who lived that mission as players. As baseball has increasingly given itself over to its business interests, it helps to have a force of purists from other eras out to remind us of the simply joy of pursuing a sandlot day dream.

"I'm happy I played when I did," Robinson told the Indy after Saturday's clinic, dismissing the more lucrative age that followed his own tenure from 1955 to 1977. "I think I played at the best time with the best players. I don't have any problem with guys making as much as they want to make, but they don't have near as much fun as we did."

The young ballplayers who came out for the clinic may not have a firm grasp of time yet, judging from Robinson's report that several kids gave him a laugh when they said, "Oh, gee whiz, I'm glad to see you. I thought you were dead." Or, "Did you play with Babe Ruth?" On the other hand, Robinson met a child who was named after him, and in the clubhouse, he came across the bat of Sky Sox alum and current Rockie Brooks Kieschnick, who was also named after Robinson.

He knows how memorable an experience like this one can be for these kids. He remembers his own experience growing up in Arkansas, far from any major-league teams. He never saw a major-league game until he signed with the Orioles right out of high school in 1955, but he was a devotee of his father's playing and an admirer of the Little Rock Travelers (AA), who hosted a clinic he attended as a child.

Robinson says he can't remember a time when he wasn't consumed with baseball. "I tagged along after my dad, who was a pretty good player," he explains. "He played [fast-pitch softball] in 1938 for International Harvester. They went to the World Championship at Soldier's Field in Chicago and got beat 2-1. When I got to be 5, 6, 7, 8 I bat-boyed for [my father's teams]. He played baseball and he played softball and he was a fireman and I bat-boyed for the firemen team. I just kind of traveled with him, and really loved the game. I never wanted to do anything else as long as I can remember."

Although he doesn't see dramatic changes in the way kids learn and embrace the game, Robinson sees the disappearance of the pickup game as a one significant loss. "I might be all wet here, but I mean, I was playing all the time. Pickup games, or doing this and doing that, in blue jeans, no uniform. I really believe that there's a certain instinct that you gain by just doing this and not being so structured. You know how the Little League is now. If you don't have the shoes, the socks, the whole deal, you don't play. But we played all the time. Hey, I knew the game. I knew fly balls, tag up, doing this, doing that. I just don't see that instinct as much as I did before."

Robinson is sympathetic to the fact that most of the kids dreaming of the big leagues at these clinics will never make it past high-school ball. "You get to a certain point and you kind of realize, well, hey, it's not going to happen for me," he says. The youngsters may never get closer to the majors than they are on the field with the alumni, and he's determined to make the most of this chance for them. "I've often thought what it would have been like for me to play and then all of a sudden they say, 'Well, you're not good enough.' I mean it would have hurt!"

Ironically, Robinson may be the first to suggest that he was a little too enraptured by the game, that the devotion of the players in his era was a double-edged sword. "If there was a game, I had to play. This was just our mentality when I played," he asserts, recalling the time he left his wife in Miami Beach the day after she gave birth so he could play a spring training exhibition game in Tampa. "I was so stupid. We just kind of had that mentality that if there was a game, we had to be there. Baseball was so much at the top of the list that we didn't even think about those things."

The upside of his devotion includes four trips to the World Series for Robinson's Orioles and two rings to celebrate victories in '66 and '71. "There's so many guys that didn't get a chance to play in a World Series. They foster that thought their whole life," he concedes. But Robinson was more familiar with the taste of victory, and his championship teammates share an enduring bond and a lasting place in his heart. "All those guys on those teams when we were in the World Series, they all bring a big smile to my face."

Long after the last drills of the clinic are over, Robinson is still bringing smiles to the straggling admirers at Sky Sox Stadium. He eagerly poses for pictures, enthusiastically signs autographs and offers endless advice on everything from breaking into the majors to breaking in a new glove. Luis Aparicio used to put a ball in his glove, tie a rope around it, soak it in water overnight, and then let it dry like that, Robinson tells a young player.

His own technique is a capsule version of the plain-spoken philosophy he has spread throughout the day. The best way to break in a glove? Use it. Play baseball with it. Brooks Robinson smiles and hands the glove back to the 12-year-old boy, who smiles back in gratitude and camaraderie.

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