In the zone: Former Orioles player recalls 1970 World Series

BALTIMORE (AP) — Half a century later, Brooks Robinson recalls every part of the play: a bullet off the bat of Reds slugger Lee May that hugged the foul line and seemed a sure hit until — 15 feet past third base — Robinson lunged to his right to backhand the ball. Then, off balance and in foul ground, he whirled, bounced a throw to first base and nipped the runner.

“I didn’t even have time to plant my foot. I can’t ever remember making another play like that,” said Robinson, 83, the Orioles’ Hall of Fame third baseman.

It was Game 1 of the 1970 World Series in a week that Robinson would claim as his own. Time and again, on a national stage, he foiled the Cincinnati Reds, killing rallies with his glove or kindling them with his bat. He hit .429, set or tied seven World Series records and led the Orioles to a near sweep (four games to one) to capture their second world championship.

After his last at-bat in Game 5, the Memorial Stadium crowd of 45,341 rose in unison to give Robinson a standing ovation. Never mind that he’d struck out looking. Even the Reds chimed in.

“I would pay to watch him play,” Cincy’s Pete Rose said.

In hindsight, Robinson — never one to boast — concedes he was on a roll.

“I played a long time (23 years) but I’d never had five games in a row like that,” the series’ Most Valuable Player said recently from his Owings Mills home. “I was in a zone. It was a combination of being a good fielder and being lucky, I guess. You can play for a whole week and not have a ball hit to you.”

Determined to avenge the Orioles’ upset loss to the New York Mets in the 1969 fall classic, he’d scribbled on his suitcase, “Brooks Robinson, Baltimore Orioles, 1970 World Champions.” So what happened? In Game 1, second inning, Robinson made an error. It still nags at him.

“Woody Woodward (a .223 hitter) hit a ground ball and I threw high to first base,” Robinson said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? First the Mets and now this? Here we go again.’ A lot of things went through my mind, none of them good.”

But the miscue proved harmless and Robinson sparkled thereafter.

“I guess I just got my error out of the way early,” he said.

In the sixth inning, he made the standout play to retire May. Then, in the top of the seventh, he hit a changeup from Reds ace Gary Nolan for a game-winning home run in a 4-3 victory.

The AstroTurf at Riverfront Stadium didn’t hinder his fielding, said Robinson, who’d rarely played on it. Just one American League team (Chicago) had a synthetic infield.

“The ball took true hops,” he said, “though it moved a little faster.”

So how did he make the flashy stops and acrobatic stabs on quick turf? Robinson shrugged off the question.

“Your reflexes are your reflexes,” he said. “It’s just instinct, I don’t know what else to tell you.”

He starred again in Game 2, a 6-5 Orioles win, with an RBI single and robbing May with another backhand catch of a ground smash that he turned into a double play.

“I turned all the way around on that one,” Robinson said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

In two days, the balding, 33-year-old father of four had awed the fans and numbed the Reds.

“If Robinson isn’t there, we have two victories and they have none,” Reds manager Sparky Anderson said in the losers’ clubhouse. “I’m beginning to see him in my sleep. If I dropped this paper plate, he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out.”

Johnny Bench was more succinct.

“Brooks Robinson ought to be declared illegal,” said the Cincinnati catcher, who’d be thwarted himself in Game 3. In the sixth inning, he hit a line drive that Robinson speared one-handed, sprawled in the dirt with his glove raised in triumph. At bat, he hit a two-run, bases-loaded double and later doubled again, scoring on a grand slam by pitcher Dave McNally as the Orioles won, 9-3, at Memorial Stadium.

The Reds won the next one, 6-5, on a game-winning three-run homer by May, who crowed afterward.

“I finally found a way to get it past that ‘Hoover’ (vacuum cleaner),” said May. “I hit it over him.”

Robinson, meanwhile, finished the game with a home run and three singles, with two RBIs and two runs scored. He tacked on another single late in Game 5, a 9-3 victory, and finished with nine hits, matching the record for most in a five-game series. He might have set a new mark, had he not sacrificed the chance to do it in the third inning with the Orioles nursing a two-run lead.

“We had a man on second base with no outs, and I needed a hit to tie that record,” Robinson said. “I could have pulled the ball, but I wanted to hit it the other way (to the right side) to move the runner to third.”

Robinson grounded out, the runner advanced and scored on the next play. His selfless act wasn’t lost on his teammates.

“In the clubhouse, Frank Robinson paid me a wonderful tribute. He said I was really a team player,” Robinson said.

The crowd showed its thanks following his final at-bat in the eighth inning.

“That’s the first time I got a standing ovation after striking out,” he said. “The (applause) was nice; it really was. I figured people were clapping because I’d played here so long, and for being a person-to-person guy, and because most of them liked me — and because I’d met most of them.”

In the ninth, Robinson made a backhand grab of a Bench line drive. Fittingly, he then retired the final hitter to end the Series.

“It was a slow grounder that took a big hop to me,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Don’t mess this up’ as I threw him out.”

The Reds left in awe.

“We don’t have anything like him in the National League,” Anderson said.

“It’s a thrill to see plays made like that, even if they hurt you,” Rose said.

“I call him a ‘long’ third baseman because he seems to stretch everywhere,” May said.

In the champions’ champagne-soaked clubhouse, reporters asked the hero’s whereabouts.

“He’s not at his locker yet,” a team official said. “But four guys are over there interviewing his glove.”

Robinson’s prize as the series’ MVP: a 1971 steel-gray Dodge Charger.

“If we knew he wanted a car so badly, we’d have given him one before this thing started,” Rose said.

Amid the hoopla, the Orioles staged their playful Kangaroo Court, where judge Frank Robinson (with a mop on his head) proposed fining the star for “showboating” in the field.

“Judge, if you fine me a buck, I won’t give you a ride in my new car,” the defendant said.

“Case dismissed,” his honor said.

The Hall of Fame approached Robinson and asked: Could it display his glove? Not yet, he said.

“I told them, ‘You’ll have to wait a year. I don’t want to give it up.’ ”

Shortly after the Series, he posed for a Norman Rockwell painting, an oil-on-canvas likeness of No. 5 signing an autograph for a youngster. (Years later, Robinson bought the 3-foot painting at auction for $200,000).

His savvy play would long haunt the losers.

“A year later, in the All-Star Game, Bench hit me another bullet, WHAM! I took one step to my left, caught it on the short hop and threw him out,” Robinson said. “Years later I watched that play on film and realized that when I caught the ball, he pitched his bat straight up in the air, like, ‘Oh my God, it’s Robinson again … ’ ”

In 1975, following his trade to the Orioles, Lee May approached No. 5 in the clubhouse.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘No one would have heard of your ass if I hadn’t hit those balls down to you,’ ” Robinson said.

Those memories, he’ll cherish to the end.

“Do I feel 83? Yeah,” said the grandfather of 10. “I can’t make the plays anymore. I mean, I can still dive and catch them — I just can’t get back up.”

Most of his baseball memorabilia — including the Rockwell painting — is gone, auctioned off years ago for charities. And what of the sports car he received as World Series MVP?

“It was kind of snazzy, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I’m not sure what happened to it; we already had a station wagon.”

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