It’s funny how the mind works.
When I saw that baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson died Feb. 7 at the age of 83, I was immediately transported back to 1969 to a 10-year-old version of myself. You see, Robinson was a participant in the first Major League game I saw in person.
I don’t recall when Dad told my younger brother, Steve, and me that we were going to see the Minnesota Twins and the Baltimore Orioles play, but I think we knew at least a month ahead of time. That gave Steve and me plenty of time to brush up on statistics of players on both teams. In 1969, that meant checking the box scores in the daily paper.
The game was Sunday, Aug. 3. We left early that morning with four of us in the car; Dad drove, his friend, Bob, rode shotgun, and Steve and I were in the back. We caught early Mass somewhere along the way, then were off to Metropolitan Stadium, home of the Minnesota Twins.
Now that I have a daughter in the Twin Cities, it’s a drive I’ve made countless times. It’s around four hours and goes quickly. But when you are 10 and baseball is involved, we might as well have been driving to Baltimore. I’m pretty sure Steve and I thought we’d never get there.
Robinson was a big part of the conversation on the drive up. Dad and Bob were both Orioles fans and kept telling us to watch him during the game. He was an Oriole outfielder and they felt he was the best player in the major leagues. Dad and Bob told us if we wanted to be good players ourselves, to focus on him during the game.
We finally got to Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. The sun was out, the stadium was packed, and it looked to me like every color imaginable was represented on shirts worn by spectators.
It was the first year of divisional play in baseball, so with the Twins and Orioles leading their respective divisions, the game was a preview of playoffs scheduled a month later.
Steve and I had never seen batting practice, had never seen grown men throw across the outfield so effortlessly and had never seen the infield watered down before the start of a game.
The game started and the crowd roared with every pitch delivered by Twins starter Jim Kaat.
With one out in the top of the first, Robinson came to the plate. Dad and Bob both nudged us to make sure we were watching. They didn’t have to worry. Neither Steve nor I could take our eyes off the field.
What happened next is something a 10-year-old simply doesn’t expect and never forgets.
Robinson took a called third strike from the home plate umpire, argued and was ejected. Orioles manager, Earl Weaver, who wasn’t exactly on the Christmas card lists of too many umpires, stormed out and was also ejected.
The crowd roared their approval, including Steve and me. Dad and Bob on the other hand, sat there stunned. All that happened before the Twins got a chance to bat.
There was plenty of magic left to go around that afternoon. The Twins went on to win, courtesy of a pinch-hit grand slam from Rich Reese in the bottom of the seventh off Orioles starter, Dave McNally. The Orioles brought in relief pitcher, Eddie Watt, for the last two innings. He hailed from Iowa. Dad had played against Watt in an area semi-pro tournament years earlier. Knowing your dad played against a major leaguer is heady stuff when you’re 10.
After that day, Steve and I prepped our Whiffle Ball games by watering down the gravel part of our driveway before each game. If it was good enough for the big leaguers, it was good enough for us.
Robinson had a great career. He was Most Valuable Player in both leagues, the only player to do so. He was a Triple Crown winner in 1966 and became the first black manager in baseball in 1975 with the Cleveland Indians. He left his mark on the game and made it better.
That day in Bloomington was the only chance I got to see him play.
A lot has changed since that August day. Metropolitan Stadium was torn down and is now home to the Mall of America. It’s not really a place I care for.
Dad died in 2005 and Bob in 2015. Both left their mark on Steve and me, much like Robinson did on baseball.
Like I said, it’s funny how the mind works. The day of that game, we had no idea we were watching a future Hall of Famer. Looking back on the day, Steve and I were riding with a couple of Hall of Famers ourselves.
We just didn’t know it at the time.