Written by award-winning storyteller Steve Rondinaro
When you pick a childhood hero from the ranks of celebrity or sports, you have no idea of who they really are. You only know they are great at what they do. They capture your attention and affection.
I hit a grand slam when I picked Brooks Robinson, the amazing third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles.
My father and I shared a love of baseball, but I got turned on to the Orioles by dad’s friend, Clarence “Shiek” Spaulding. Shiek owned a bar in Elmira, NY, home of the Orioles’ Double A Pioneers farm team at the time. He got to know a lot of future Orioles at that bar, including manager Earl Weaver. So when Shiek went to Florida each year in the spring, he’d bring me back wonderful Oriole stuff from training camp: bats, yearbooks, hats, balls…. and lots of stories.
The hero of those O’s yearbooks from the mid and late 60’s was one Brooks Calbert Robinson. There he was in glorious black and white offering tips on playing the infield that I memorized and can recite to this day. If only…
As a kid, I thought I’d get a chance to see Brooks in action when the O’s came to Elmira to play the Pioneers in an exhibition. Darn, Brooks had to stay back because of an injury. (I did see Boog Powell hit a home run off a neighboring roof top that night.) I thought I’d get to see Brooks a year later at an off-season banquet in Elmira but a blizzard doomed that. Alas, it was not to be.
I was a full-grown TV newsman at WTVJ in Miami, Florida when I finally got to meet my childhood hero in the press box of the old Miami Stadium. Brooks was doing color commentary on the Oriole broadcasts and was down for some spring training games. Sportscaster Tony Segretto introduced us. I was a kid again, with baseball in hand, hoping this legend from my youth was what I’d imagined him to be. He was… signing my baseball, posing for a picture, chatting for a bit, then going to work. I’d finally met the man and he was cool.
I had no idea what was to come.
I moved on to WESH in Orlando, settling in nicely as the main anchor, space reporting enthusiast, and still a lover of baseball. We had adopted our daughter in Miami and were about to adopt our son. As Mrs. Rondinaro and I talked names, I said, “Brooks! It’s a cool name, he’s a good guy, it sounds good with Rondinaro, and maybe a little athletic magic will rub off.” She agreed, God bless her.
As the cumbersome adoption process was unfolding, we’d asked our friend and WESH sports guy, Marc Middleton, to be little Brooks’ godfather. Marc took it upon himself to contact the Orioles and get an autographed picture from the retired big Brooks for the nursery. The Orioles also had a fantasy camp coming up in nearby Kissimmee. Marc had arranged for me to play an inning or two of the final game with my childhood hero for a feature story.
Adoption can be an uncertain thing. Baby Brooks came into the world the same week as the fantasy camp. He was underweight so he spent extra time in the hospital. After several days, the doctor said if Mrs. R could get an ounce of formula in him, we could take him home. It was Saturday morning… the day I was supposed to play baseball with Brooks Robinson. We go to the hospital, with me in full baseball regalia not knowing if I’m playing ball or taking our new son home. Success! She got the ounce of formula down him. He was in our custody.
We zip to our pediatrician’s office. He looked at our four-pound, ten-ounce wonder and said:
DOC: “He’s underweight, doesn’t have a lot of fat on him but otherwise healthy. Take him home, keep him wrapped up, and don’t let a lot of people handle him.”
ME: “Doc, today and today only his namesake is at the stadium in Kissimmee.”
DOC: “You want to take this child to a ballpark?” (in an incredulous tone)
ME: “Doc, today and today only his namesake is at the stadium in Kissimmee…”
DOC: “Well, I wouldn’t recommend…”
ME: “Doc, let me run this by you one more time. Today and today only…”
DOC: “OK already. Just keep him in the car and let people come up the window to see him.”
And we’re off.
We’re out of that parking lot and headed for Kissimmee at warp speed with Mrs. Rondinaro calmly watching all of this unfold. Meantime Marc and videographer Ricky Scarwid are waiting at the stadium as the game is going on, presumably to shoot the story of me living out my fantasy. Or not.
We roll into that stadium and I have my brand new son out of that car in an instant.
Across the parking lot.
Up the ramp.
Into the stands.
There’s Brooks Robinson out on third base.
Here’s Brooks Rondinaro in my arms.
The inning ends and Brooks comes straight off the field and into the stands. Ricky is rolling video, my heart is going 90 miles an hour as my new son is about to meet my childhood hero and his namesake.
“So this is little Brooksie,” says big Brooks. “Can I hold him?”
Oh God. Panic. I’d already violated doctor’s orders any number of times. How do I say no to Brooks Robinson? Somehow, for some reason, I had grabbed some wrapped alcohol towelettes from the hospital nursey and stuffed them in my pocket. I asked Tammy to get one. Then I said, “Brooks, you still got the good hands?” “Well yeah,” he said. “And I’ve held a few of these of my own.” Sheepishly I asked, “Would you do me a favor and wash your hands first? I’m already in trouble with the doctor.” He laughed, took the towelette and gave us the photo op of a lifetime: me handing my son to my childhood hero. I never did get to play baseball that day.
A new friend.
Brooks Robinson became a family friend. If he had an appearance in the area little Brooks and I would go see him. He came to the house for dinner and gave Tammy’s pasta rave reviews. We went to Baltimore for games and had dinner with the Robinsons. One night I got to introduce him as the keynote speaker for the governor’s baseball dinner in Central Florida. That was a special honor. Afterwards, Brooks and Connie came to the house and I pulled out those old Oriole yearbooks that I cherished. His eyes lit up as he started telling stories about those teams and the guys in those books. Somebody pinch me! This was better than a dream.
When Ted Williams opened his Hitters Hall of Fame in Citrus County (that’s another long story for another day), it was like all of Cooperstown came south. Hall of Famers everywhere; Brooks among them serving as my guide. “Luis (Aparicio, O’s shortstop), I want you to meet my friend Steve.” And so it went. It was something watching him with his peers and to see the respect they accorded him. Everybody loved Brooks.
I never got to see him play in person, but his highlight reel is burned into my memory… especially that 1970 World Series against the Reds. I have the Norman Rockwell poster “Gee thanks, Brooks!” framed and mounted on the wall… and of course signed by Brooks. It was done to honor him on September 18, 1977, at the end of a storied 23-year career… all of it in Baltimore.
18 time All Star
16 Gold Gloves
1964 American League MVP
1970 World Series MVP
Thanks Brooks, one more time.
When I heard the Orioles were honoring him with a Thanks, Brooks night at a game last fall I had to be there. My wife readily agreed. He meant that much to us. Brooks’ health had been failing and I didn’t get to see him personally that night but sat there in the stands in tears as he was driven around the field. The crowd was roaring and I was far from alone in the crying department. The man was loved and revered. It was deeply emotional sharing this moment of a public thank you.
As I pondered the news that Brooks had passed, I was leafing through my memorabilia. I came across his book “Third Base Is My Home” published in 1974. Out of print, I was elated to find it in a used bookstore many years ago. The best part is the signed inscription: Steve, Best wishes to my good friend. Thanks for your friendship. Brooks Robinson
Right back at you, Brooks. I was truly privileged to know you. A childhood hero who became a treasured adulthood friend?! What could be better than that?!!! Thanks for your friendship, Brooks. What a legacy you leave behind.