During his 21 seasons in Baltimore, Brooks Robinson has been baseball's nonpareil third baseman, a player whose defensive excellence has made him an All-Star and a favorite of Oriole fans even in seasons when his hitting was a good bit less than spectacular.
Robinson has won 16 consecutive Gold Gloves and his major league records for third basemen include 8,683 errorless chances accepted, 605 double plays and the highest career fielding average (.971) for 1,000 or more games. However, no statistic adequately delineates Robinson's mastery of his position. His glovework has to be seen to be appreciated, and during his long career he has tended to save his best plays for All-Star Games, playoffs and World Series when he was in full view of the nation. In fact, the stop that is widely regarded as his most miraculous occurred in the first game of the 1970 Series against Cincinnati. With the score tied in the sixth, Lee May (now an Oriole) slashed the ball between Robinson and the bag. It seemed a sure extra-base hit until Robinson lunged to backhand the careening ball. His momentum carried him far into foul territory, where he spun and threw to first without looking. His one-hop toss beat May by inches.
Last season, when he was 38, Robinson led the major leagues' regular third basemen in fielding percentage, and in his first six games this year he did not commit an error. Nonetheless, he may not be playing third for the Orioles much longer. The glove man's glove is obviously sound, but his bat is betraying him. A steady and sometimes splendid hitter during most of his career, Robinson now has to recover from a miserable year—he batted only .201 in 1975—if he is to remain a Baltimore regular, or he must rely on his teammates to hit well enough that he can be kept in the lineup strictly for his defense. Early indications are discouraging on both counts. At the end of last week, Robinson had just one hit, and the Orioles, who are expected to be in contention for the championship of the American League East, had a modest 3-3 record, mainly because they had failed to score many runs.
Fighting cold weather, Catfish Hunter, Luis Tiant and other miseries during a five-game home stand that opened the season, Baltimore had a .200 team batting average and an even more wretched .239 team slugging percentage. The Orioles produced a total of just nine runs and failed to score in all but four of their first 43 innings. Of Baltimore's 31 hits, only five were for extra bases. None were home runs. Before the Orioles left on a seven-game road trip, the hottest thing going at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium was a Chevy burning in the parking lot on the night of a 7-1 loss to the Yankees. And their fortunes improved only slightly during their first away game in Oakland. The Orioles won 6-1, but had only five hits and three earned runs.
All of which may have helped Reggie Jackson as much as it hurt Robinson, whose average was .053 after the defeat of the A's. Jackson is Baltimore's reluctant rightfielder who has not signed a contract with the Orioles since he was traded to them from Oakland three weeks ago. If Baltimore's power hitting continues to be minimal, Jackson's bargaining power may get better than that of an Arabian oil sheik.
The Orioles' lack of slugging and Jackson's absence could combine to reduce the amount of time Robinson has to regain his batting stroke. There are those who insist no amount of time will help Robinson, that he is finished as a hitter. Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver does not include himself in that group but he admits that his first change if he needs to improve the Orioles' offense probably would come at third base, where 25-year-old Doug DeCinces is Robinson's heir apparent. A good glove man, although hardly Robinson's equal, DeCinces hit .251 in 61 games as a rookie last year. His average after July 24 was a strong .280.
This spring Robinson said, "I figure I've got about 35 or 40 games to show Earl that lean still hit. If I can't do it anymore. I'll just quit." He subsequently tempered that statement. Now Robinson says he is unlikely to terminate his career before the season ends, no matter how poorly he hits.
That will leave it up to Weaver to decide whether Robinson remains a regular. "He probably can't hit with the power he had when he was younger," the manager says. "Other than that, we're expecting Brooksie to do everything he's always done. You never know when a guy has reached the end of his career. The only way to find out is to let him go out there and play. In 1969 Brooks hit .234. It was an off-year, a terrible year, for the guy, but we won the division by 19 games. He came back with five good years after that, and in 1974 he was the second-best among our regulars with a .288 average. That was only the season before last, and I can't believe Brooksie has lost his hitting that quick."
As for a trial period, Weaver says, "I guess the bad thing would be us getting into a slump as a team and having to make a move at third base earlier than I would like. There's no such thing as a certain number of games, but there has to be a certain number to make sure Brooks gets a fair shot. I'd like it to be 162 games, but it can't be that long if we're losing and need offense. If we're winning, if we're in first place, and if Brooks is doing the job defensively, there's no reason for us to make a change. And I'm not conceding that he can't hit. He hasn't lost any of his agility, his eyesight or his quickness, which makes me feel he can still do the things up at home plate."
Robinson is equally reluctant to buy the theory that his offensive skills are gone, even though he admits his career is now a year-to-year proposition.
"I'm going to play this year, and then sit down and decide what I'm going to do next year," he says. "I may play one or two or three or four or five more seasons. I don't have any set timetable. If I don't hit and somebody else plays, I'm still going to be here for at least the rest of this year trying to help them with what I can do.
"Defensively I'm playing just as well as I ever have. I feel that I'm moving just as well, that the reflexes are there, that I'm making all the same plays I've always made.
"Sure, I hit almost .290 in 1974, then I went to .201 last year, but I don't believe that means I'm over the hill. I just don't think you go from .290 to .201 without some explanation other than just losing it. I got into some bad habits last year and never got straightened out. Now I've put a lot of pressure on myself because I know I've got to come back and hit much better if I'm going to continue to play."
Toward that goal, Robinson is concentrating on being more aggressive with the bat. "I have to try to force it more than I did before," he says. "I tell myself on almost every pitch, 'You've really got to be ready, you've got to get the bat out there and get it.' "
Those are hardly the words of a man resigned to being a defensive specialist. And the pressure Robinson feels as he attempts to regain his stroke is sometimes reflected in his temperament, which long has been one of the most even in baseball. "I really want to do well," he says. "As a result, I'm probably up or down more than I normally would be. When I do well, I really appreciate it. When I don't, I think about it a lot more than I used to."
Fans in Baltimore, who have known for years that even if Robinson struck out, he would be at third ready to make amends with his glove, also are thinking about his failures at the plate a lot more than they used to. There cannot be many more stretches like the one Robinson and his fellow Orioles have suffered through during the early days of this season, or he will be sitting on the bench. Now that's something that will take a lot of getting used to.
ROBBY'S HEADACHE: A .053 AVERAGE