There was only one Brooks Robinson at third
OK, enough. There was Brooks Robinson, and there was nobody else. Still, out of nowhere, folks are getting amnesia regarding the greatest third baseman ever when it comes to fielding, throwing and breathing.
Chipper Jones isn't that guy, by the way, but don't get me wrong. As soon as he becomes eligible for Cooperstown within the next four years, he'll waltz through the doors. And, no question, Bobby Cox also is Hall of Fame bound since he was splendid while managing Jones during their 19 years together with the Braves.
I mention Jones and Cox, because Cox was among the speakers a few days ago at a ballroom in downtown Atlanta during the induction of Jones into the Braves Hall of Fame. The team also retired his No. 10, and Cox said of Jones to the packed crowd: "He reminded me of Mickey Mantle when he did run those bases. The other thing I miss a lot is as a third baseman coming in on those chopped balls and those bunted balls and barehanding them. Brooks Robinson, I thought was great at that. But I'm going to put [Jones] ahead for that when [he gets] to the Hall of Fame."
With apologies to Cox, nobody in baseball history has charged, scooped and thrown better than Robinson on chopped balls, bunts or anything else. Just like nobody, well, here's the latest: The comparisons of Manny Machado to You Know Who. More specifically, there is the endless buzz over Machado's defensive play of plays on Sunday in New York at Yankee Stadium. It was magnificent, alright. Then again, he has spent much of his second Major League season at 21 flashing Brooks-like qualities for the same Orioles who once featured Robinson for 23 seasons.
It's just that, even if Machado wins the Gold Glove this year, he would have to capture the next 15 Gold Gloves in a row at his position to equal what Robinson did before his retirement after the 1977 season. Machado also would have to turn his play of plays on Sunday into a slew of play of plays for an entire season along the way to doing so for a whole career that covers several presidents, the playoffs in general and the World Series in particular.
While Robinson accomplished such things and more, no other third baseman has come close to them. Not Pie Traynor, not Eddie Mathews, not Ron Santo, not George Brett, not Mike Schmidt.
Even so, Machado reached Brooks status in the minds of many after the Yankees' Luis Cruz smoked a grounder down the third-base line Sunday at Yankee Stadium that the backhanding Machado watched ricochet off his glove as his momentum took him at least 10 feet into foul territory. Somehow, he grabbed control of the ball, whirled on his back foot and delivered a rocket to Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who stretched and then stretched some more while keeping his foot on the bag.
Cruz was called out, and the whole thing has been replayed all over television and the Internet. Later, Orioles manager Buck Showalter told the Baltimore Sun: "I hope [the best for Machado] is yet to come. I hope it is that one where he catches the last out in the World Series. That's the one I am looking for. Kind of like another third baseman that was real good over there."
We're back to Brooks, always Brooks. And Brooks is mentioned with regularity these days in conjunction to Machado, partly because of their Orioles connection, but mostly because Robinson performed this original play of plays 43 years ago.
The Robinson play was better.
Let's begin and end with the fact that the Robinson play developed with all of its glory during the pressure of the World Series, which was awful for me. That's because we're talking about Game 1 of the 1970 Fall Classic against my Big Red Machine in Cincinnati, where Robinson and his team were playing their first game ever on an artificial surface that contained just sliding pits. If a grounder hit the edges of the pits around the bases -- such as third, for instance -- the ball had a tendency to zoom toward parts unknown for even veteran artificial-surface fielders.
The point is, with a World Series championship at stake, the whole sliding-pit thing could rattle around the head of a third baseman who was new to it all, even if his name were Brooks Robinson.
It didn't happen. With the Reds seeking to break a 3-3 tie in the sixth inning of that Game 1, Lee May ripped a bullet down the third-base line headed toward the sliding pit. Robinson charged to his right, backhanded the ball while moving into foul territory, whirled (altogether now) on his back foot and threw across the diamond to first baseman Boog Powell, who (altogether again) stretched and then stretched again some more while keeping his foot on the bag.
May was called out, and it wasn't close.
To be fair, May had three speeds -- slow, slower and backward. And, in contrast to Machado's laser, Robinson's throw reached Powell on a bounce that was aided by the springy artificial surface. Those points were secondary to the big picture, though, because nobody ever had seen a play like that, and it was the World Series, and Robinson had ignored those sliding-pit demons, and here was the biggest thing of all: He wasn't finished.
In Game 3, with Reds at first and second to start the game, Robinson turned a tiny chopper into a titanic double play after he grabbed it, stepped on third and threw to first. In the second inning, he charged a slow grounder and retired the runner at first with ease. In the third inning, he dived to his left to snatch a bullet destined for left off the bat of Johnny Bench.
If that weren't enough, Robinson helped the Orioles whip the Reds in five games with a .429 batting average that produced 17 total bases -- a World Series record at the time. He was named World Series MVP, and from a defensive perspective, he became the eternal standard for third-base excellence -- so much so that others still call his name.
You know, whether it fits the situation or not.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.