The Baltimore Oriole team bus rolled through Harlem long after midnight a few weeks ago. Brooks Robinson tucked one foot under himself, propped his chin on his raised knee, leaned his forehead against the bus window and looked out into the steamy July night.
"Been coming this way for 23 years," said Robinson, a little of the syntax of the son of a Little Rock, Ark, fireman still in his easy-going voice.
"It never changes," he said, nodding toward a crap game going on in the crevice between two tenements. "That's an awful life to get born into a never get out of. Shows us how lucky we are. How grateful we should be."
Some way that life has been pitching Brooks Robinson up and in for several years now.First, his batting power disappeared, then his average dropped and last year he lost his regular third-base job.
On top of that, his outside businesses went sour, he fell into debt and was sued several times by creditors. He had to approach the Orioles last winter on an "any-way-you-want-me" basis just to get a player-coach job to help him stay solvent. And yesterday the greatest third baseman in the history of baseball was nudged into midseason retirement so that the Orioles would have room on the roster for catcher Rick Dempsey.
When the bus-rolled to a stop in front of the Statler Hilton just a few weeks ago, it turned out to be the last time Robinson would ride back from Yankee Stadium as a player.
Everyone piled off, Robinson carried a case in his hand. "Here," he said to Baltimore reporter. "You left your typewriter under your seat."
Robinson left the game the way he played it - uncomplaining, smiling, teasing and being teased, pitching batting practice and picking up a typewriter for a reporter or a dirty towel for a bat boy.
Of all the game's greats, perhaps Robinson has been least cursed by his own fame. He had great talent and never abused it. He received adulation, and reciprocated with Common decency. While other players dressed like kings and acted like royalty, Robinson arrived at the park dressed like a cab driver. Other stars had fans. Robinson made friends.
The salad days are easy for every Hall of Famer. From 1964, when he was the American League's most valuable player, until 1970, when he was MVP of the World Series, Robinson was a living legend. Few players get to hear the words "the greatest at his position in the history of the game" while they are still in their prime.
Robinson got the chuckle when Cincinnati manager Sparky Andreson said during the '70 Series, "I'm beginning to see Brooks in my sleep. If I dropped this paper plate, he'd pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first."
For his first 21 professional seasons, Robinson got to show his gifts. If his feet were slow, his reflexes were the fastest. If his arm was average, his accuracy and quick release were the best. If his bat was merely good most of the time, it was at its best in the clutch. And above all, his gloves was magic.
When the Hall of Fame asked for his glove after the '70 Series, Brooks said, "Wait a year. It'll take me that long to get a new one broken in just right."
But it was in his last two seasons, when he still moved with a sort of slow-motion grace, that Robinson got to show his character.
"It's rough to try to replace an immortal," the o's third baseman Dong DeCinces said this year," but Brooks did everything to make it easier for me."
"Brooks could have caused a lot of problems for me" the last couple of years," manager Earl Weaver said this month. "He carries a lot of weight in this town. But because he's the kind of person he is, he made the end easier for everybody."
Robinson resisted the notios that his skills had worn thin, but he never disputed the clear interpretation of the statistics or said they were an illusion that would pass.
When his money problems became a public embarrassment, Robinson blamed no one, shielded his partners from criticism and constantly scoffed at his difficulties.
"Brooks and (wife) Connie haven't changed their living style since the days we were making $6,000 a year in the minors," said Robinson's best friend, ex-Oriole. Ron Hansen. "His friends aren't millionaires and politicians, just average guys like me . . . People still love him just like they always have. He doesn't scare anybody. He's never snubbed anybody.For 20 years he has always had empathy for other people's feelings and now they are going to have empathy for his."
Yesterday Robinson stepped down in typical style - making Weaver's decision seem inevitable and reasonable so that not one Brooks-loving boo will distract the Orioles from their pennant-race work.
"I want to do what's best for the club," said Robinson on assuming his duties as a full-time coach. "What am I going to do, stand in the way? I can't help the club doing what I'm doing now. I can't play once a month. The kids have done the job all year and they deserve to keep doing it."
For many athletes, retirement is an almost pathetic trauma, an overnight transformation from larger-than-life hero to has-been.
For Robinson there will be no shock. His life will not change a whit.
Robinson, who played in 97 per cent of the Oriole games from 1959 to 1976, has squeezed every drop of productivity from his talent. All the best is behind him.
His retirement merely saves him the potential pain of stumbling during a crucial September game. There is no kindness in asking Robinson to pass through more fires.
Where other stars of lesser magnitude than Robinson have had to swallow their bombast overnight. Brooksie - "Mr. Bad Body" - has always enjoyed pitching batting practice with his hat off "to get a tan on my bald spot."
Baltimore now can have its long-delayed celebrations to fete Robinson, the man general manager Hank Peters yesterday called "unquestionably the Orioles' most important and most beloved player. He will never be replaced in the hearts of his countless fans."
When this latest crescendo of cheering stops, Robinson, as always, will simply laugh at the idea that anyone should be his fan. He has always been willing to settle for friends.