One night last fall, Robin Yount of the Milwaukee Brewers became the first man to get four hits twice in a World Series. When the game ended, a fan tried to give him the ball he had hit out of the stadium in his last at bat. Yount signed it and gave it back.
"I thought he'd get more out of it than me," Yount said. "I see thousands of baseballs. It was just another ball to me."
Ted Simmons, the Brewers catcher/thinker, said, "You won't find him on the front of a box of Wheaties. But he is, in fact, Jack Armstrong."
Yount laughed and said, "I don't even know who Jack Armstrong is."
They call the Brewer shortstop Rockin' Robin and he hates it for the affectation and the attention it brings. "When I was young I went as Rob," he said. "I let as few people as possible know it was Robin."
That's not possible anymore, an inevitable complication for a man who says, "I just like to keep things as simple as possible . . . All I do is go out and play and live with it when it's over."
In 1982, Yount had a season to savor. He was the American League MVP. He led the majors with 210 hits, 367 total bases, a .578 slugging percentage. He batted .331 and hit 29 home runs, two on the last day of the season in Baltimore off Jim Palmer to clinch the American League East championship. "I'm not the dominating type that can carry a team," he said. Honest.
Don Sutton, who pitched and won that game against Palmer, said, "You have to back him into a corner, pin down his arms and and say, 'Robin, I'm going to give you a compliment.' I've played 17 years with some bona fide superstars and some that think they are. He is unique. He is a superstar and doesn't know it. He doesn't know how good he is. He plays for the sake of doing well and not for the sake of accolades . . . It's nice to see and it's nice to play with it."
Yount had the type of season that transforms a man and a team. "It sure helped my attitude toward baseball," he said. "It gave me confidence. I've been through it now. I know I can perform in that situation with that ability."
His friend and roommate, Bob McClure, said, "It changed all of us. We go into this year knowing we can do it, not knowing we should do it."
The change became fact on a Sunday afternoon in Baltimore with Palmer and Sutton pitching for the American League East championship. Sutton still talks about that Sunday as if it was the last one, not one six months ago.
"That was the day I became a complete major league ballplayer," said Simmons. "I'd never experienced that kind of intensity in a game that meant so much. I remember the fifth inning, with men at first and second and two outs. Cal Ripken was up. He hit the ball over (Cecil) Cooper's head. It hit a foot and a half foul. The ump called it foul. I knew it was foul. Moments later, there were two guys high-fiving it in front of me and the fans were beserk. I knew the ball was foul 15 seconds ago but everyone was still going beserk. Cal headed to third and now instead of 5-2, it was 5-4 with the tying run on third. But none of it happened because the ball was foul. But no one in the stadium would let it register.
"The guy was spelling O-R-I-O-L-E-S and I was praying to God, 'Don't let him do it again' because at the end of the third time, I was spelling it, too. I went up to Rollie (Fingers) and said, 'Does it get any worse than this?' He said, 'If you can win this game here against Palmer, you can win any game anywhere.' "
Finally, the umpire's will became clear. When the inning ended, the Brewers still led, 5-2. "There were times I was not certain I would survive that inning," Simmons said.
Yount's two home runs off Palmer, one to left field, one to right, had given the Brewers an early 3-0 lead. In the ninth, he was hit with a pitch and ended the regular season with a .3307 batting average, less than a point short of the title.
"I was in awe," McClure said. "Not that he could do it, but that he did do it."
"These are the things you dream about and work so hard for," Yount said. "When you get there, you find it is as big a deal as you thought, maybe bigger . . . It was definitely emotional. There was no letdown. But it may have drained us more subconsciously. We didn't come out of the chute in the playoffs."
The Brewers lost the first two games of the AL playoffs to the California Angels, won the next three, and lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals by one, last, cool October game. "I hope we don't do anything different (this year) than win one more game," Yount said.
He spent the offseason changing diapers and riding his dirt bike. Baseball is a lovely business but racing is love. "Like Paul Newman says, 'It's a kick in the butt,' " he said.
He made an occasional appearance on the rubber chicken circuit. "I'm very shy, I guess," he said. "I wouldn't do oral reports in school."
He shies away from publicity, distrusts the process that would make myth of an ordinary guy. "There's not a whole lot to tell about me," he said. "I don't do anything different. I'm just another guy. I consider myself boring. People around me consider me boring."
Yount tugs on his Burt and Hal Skoal baseball cap, the way a kid does when he gets his first one. The cap is named for Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham's racing team. He has never met either and the question provokes a "who me?" look. Someday he'd like to race.
"He has a kid's heart in a mature body," McClure said.
"When someone is successful, we think they should be outspoken, glib, articulate," Sutton said. "He's happy performing well. He doesn't think it's necessary to articulate well, not that he can't. Success for him is in doing it with us, within his own standards."
And those standards are high. "I always felt I had a lot of ability," Yount said. "It was a matter of getting it out."
Egotistical? "What's that mean?" he replies. "A swelled head," someone explains. "Nah," he says, pulling off his cap, "it's small: 6 7/8."
By all accounts, he is as humble and unaffected as it is possible to be. But the size of his talent demands an ego to go with it. "It sounds like a conflict, but not to me," Simmons said. "People project ego to various degrees. Some project it every step they take. He projects it once every 10,000 steps."
There was such a moment last fall. After the series, there was a parade in Milwaukee and a celebration at the stadium. Players and fans gathered in the bleachers.
"Robin snuck out of the ballpark and went into the clubhouse and got his motorcycle," McClure said. "He came through the gate like Evel Knievel. The GM and owners were praying he wouldn't get hurt."
"He did two 360s around the track, parked at home plate, gave a two-fisted salute to everyone and walked to the bleachers," Simmons said. "That was a day that 20,000 people saw Robin take his 10,000th step."