It is a date Doug DeCinces will never forget—June 6, 1976, the 32nd anniversary of D-day. The Orioles were playing a doubleheader at home against Minnesota, and DeCinces' parents, his wife Kristi and his son Tim were in the stands. Sitting with them was his grandmother, who had never seen him play.
DeCinces (pronounced duh-SIN-say) didn't appear in the first game. He was supposed to be phasing out the legendary Brooks Robinson at third base, but Robinson played the whole way in the opener. And even though he went 0 for 3 and the Orioles lost, the fans wanted more of him. "We want Brooks!" they chanted as DeCinces took the field for the nightcap. His grandmother was confused. Minutes into the game DeCinces fielded a grounder with his chest, threw late to first and was charged with an error that set up a three-run Twins rally. The chants grew louder. In the second inning DeCinces' chest was bruised by another drive. The cries from the stands were now almost deafening. In a trance, DeCinces came to bat and was caught looking at a third strike.
Then things changed for the better. DeCinces singled to lead off the fifth, slugged a two-run homer in the seventh and tripled a man home in the eighth. As he stood on third, breathing heavily from his dash around the bases, the crowd rose to cheer him. DeCinces trembled visibly. "I wanted to grab a microphone and tell the people what I thought of front-runners," he recalls thinking. Afterward reporters sought him out, but he had left the park. "I didn't know if I'd ever want to come back," he says. "I just walked away."
Most anyone who replaces a legend might feel the same way. George Selkirk, who succeeded Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig's replacement, Babe Dahlgren, are remembered almost exclusively for the men they stepped in for. Even highly successful substitutes have paid a price. Carl Yastrzemski reported to Boston in 1961 to replace the recently retired No. 9, Ted Williams. The Red Sox made a point of giving Yaz No. 8. Very subtle. No wonder he couldn't hit for the better part of a season. Bobby Murcer had four good years as a Yankee, but no one would let him forget his predecessor, Mickey Mantle. Murcer didn't have Mantle's charisma or something. In six seasons as a Yankee, Murcer was never offered an endorsement.
For DeCinces, replacing Robinson was not merely difficult; it seemed impossible. Brooks came to Baltimore in 1955, the year after the Orioles moved there from St. Louis. He grew up with the franchise. Twenty years an Oriole, 16 times a Gold Glover, a World Series hero, Robinson was a local institution. In the life of a Baltimore man, it is said, there is one job, one wife and one hero. Most often in recent years that hero was Brooks. He was dumpy, balding, pigeon-toed and slow, but his diving stops and quick-release throws made him a sure Hall of Famer. Popular? He could have been elected mayor.
Playing for three years with Robinson, first as a spear carrier and then as heir apparent, DeCinces learned that legends don't die easily. It wasn't Robinson's fault. In fact, there was no friction between the two. The problem was that Baltimore wouldn't let Brooks go, and DeCinces kept pushing himself to be the next Brooks.
The initiation is finally over. At 28 years old, DeCinces not only has come out from behind Robinson's shadow, but he is also creating a glorious image of his own. Last year he hit .286, with 28 homers and 80 RBIs, and had the American League's third-highest slugging percentage (.526). During the second half of the 1978 season he performed on a par with the best-known sluggers in baseball (see box). And with just one error in his last 72 games, he was starting to field like, well, a legend.
Even if DeCinces is unable to maintain that pace this year—after the Orioles' first nine games he had made one error and was hitting .250—his peace of mind is unlikely to be disturbed. This equanimity hasn't been easy to come by. In 25 years of major league baseball, Baltimore fans have been spoiled by the defensive excellence of the Oriole infielders: Ron Hansen, Luis Aparicio, Jerry Adair, Dave Johnson, Bobby Grich, Rich Dauer, Mark Belanger and, of course, Robinson. When DeCinces joined the club in 1973, he looked anything but smooth. At third he stood stiffly, his weight back, like Ken Dryden in the nets, and at the plate he badly missed breaking pitches with his long, looping swing. Nor was his background suited to working-class Baltimore. He is tall, dark, handsome and articulate. He was born across the street from a movie studio in Bur-bank. His aunt Gloria Winters played Penny in Sky King. DeCinces, whose father is of Italian descent, might have looked good to a Hollywood casting director, but he was a misfit in Baltimore, that hard city by the sea.
In 1976, the year DeCinces became a regular, he received nasty calls and letters, and the fans and the press descended on him, pounding away with invidious comparisons to Robinson. "Brooks could have made six consecutive errors and the fans still would have cheered him," says Ron Shapiro, a close friend and adviser to both men. "Doug could have made six great plays and one error, and they would have booed him."
DeCinces hit .234 and fielded poorly. The next season he increased his average to .259 but he was still shaky in the field with 20 errors. On Sept. 18, 1977, a crowd of 51,798 gathered in Memorial Stadium for a Thanks Brooks Day honoring their retiring hero, who had been a bit player but a gnawing presence for DeCinces in the '76 and '77 seasons. It could have been DeCinces' most trying moment if he hadn't impulsively uprooted third base and presented it to Robinson. Suddenly DeCinces' detractors were wildly applauding him. "It was a catharsis," says Shapiro. "Maybe when he took out third base he symbolically released some of the pressure. But it wasn't all gone."
Indeed, whatever self-confidence DeCinces had was destroyed the following March. He reported to spring training with a sore back and missed four days of practice when Kristi suffered a miscarriage. The first grounder hit his way took a bad hop and broke his nose, for the fourth time. It was broken again early in the season. No wonder his teammates call him the Horn. Later that season, Manager Earl Weaver moved him to second in a 12-game experiment that failed miserably. By July 1 of last year a totally distraught DeCinces had committed 12 errors in 57 games and was batting .226.
It is fitting that the resolution to his problems should have come indirectly through Robinson. Brooks' friend Shapiro, a 36-year-old lawyer, writer and former state securities commissioner, approached DeCinces and suggested he undergo counseling. Shapiro had helped Robinson work out serious financial and personal difficulties in 1976. DeCinces agreed to Shapiro's recommendation that he see Skip Connor, a psychiatrist who specializes in counseling athletes and executives. After several long discussions—DeCinces never went into analysis—his problem became apparent.
Connor explains: "I had worked with professional athletes on specific disabilities. An example is a tennis player who played too guardedly after a cartilage operation and wasn't winning anymore. Doug's situation was more complicated. Here's a guy who has all the ingredients—size, speed, ability, good looks, education—and he comes into a situation that may preclude greatness. How many guys who have replaced legends have turned out to be outstanding in their own right? Historically it's almost a no-win situation. And because Brooks was hero-worshiped in Baltimore, whatever Doug did was viewed by fans, if not management and maybe even his teammates, as inherently inferior. Doug brought with him a personal sensitivity that made it impossible for him to ignore these circumstances. He began to believe the fans. He felt he was a failure. On top of that he got hurt. His broken nose became the symbol for all the other problems. His game changed to 'How do I avoid getting hurt?' His first thought was to stand in a place where he wouldn't get a ball in the nose. There were similar concerns at the plate. He was thinking, instead of letting his natural instincts do the job.
"Our conclusion was: let his subconscious do his thinking. The end result was like what one gets out of transcendental meditation or self-hypnosis—taking his mind off details, letting his body do the work."
The relaxed DeCinces immediately became the hottest hitter in the league. Balls jumped off his bat—Weaver says they take off faster than those hit by anyone he has managed, including Frank Robinson—and he was almost flawless in the field, where, though he lacks Brooks Robinson's quickness and intuition, he has better range and a stronger arm. "It was a question of confidence and relaxation," DeCinces says. "Baseball is about 80% mental."
DeCinces now feels every club should have a professional therapist. "Baseball players are viewed as so masculine, so virile, so above all problems," he says. "It's not true. Every player is a human being. Sometimes the strain and mental problems are too much. I don't feel a manager or general manager can always be expected to find out what makes a player tick."
Diversity seems to keep DeCinces ticking. He is the American League player representative, vice-president of his father's construction company and a participant in Baltimore-area charities. And his contributions don't come merely from his checkbook; he deals personally with the people he is trying to help. "You've never seen the Special Olympics?" he asks. "You ought to."
The abuse and self-doubting behind them, Doug and Kristi have become public figures, in the manner of another Oriole third baseman and his wife. And what of Brooks? He works as the color man on Oriole telecasts, as a marketing specialist for a local oil company and as a director in Shapiro's personal-management outfit, which represents a dozen Orioles and 21 other athletes. It is usually overlooked that Brooks himself replaced an excellent third baseman. George Kell. Accordingly, Robinson's view of DeCinces' struggle is worthy of note.
"I have never seen a player turn it around the way Doug did the last half of last season," Brooks says. "He was the hottest player in baseball." And all because he had learned to keep cool.
Once all thumbs at third, DeCinces committed only one error in the last 72 games of last season.