I SPENT A LOT of time yesterday sifting through the detritus of 62 years to uncover one shining moment that put a high luster on the fabulous baseball career and exemplary life of Robin Roberts.
The last Sunday of the 1950 season is the obvious choice. The Phillies' great righthander was making his third start in the final 5 days of a campaign where the Dodgers relentlessly reeled in Eddie Sawyer's young and depleted ballclub like a fisherman about to land a minnow with a pole rigged for marlin. So Whitey Ashburn threw out Cal Abrams at the plate in the bottom of the ninth to avert a Monday playoff. Dick Sisler bombed a three-run homer off Don Newcombe in the 10th. Robbie reached deep for that little extra he always seemed to have in his breast pocket, and the Phillies went to their first World Series since 1915.
Manager Eddie Sawyer gave his ace off in Game 1, raising eyebrows throughout baseball by starting relief ace Jim Konstanty against the heavily favored Yankees. Roberts started Game 2 Thursday on 3 days' rest. It was his fourth start in 9 days. A fading Joe DiMaggio beat him, 2-1, in the 10th with a homer.
There were brilliant individual games, of course, sprinkled through his time here with a rapidly fading Phillies team like leitmotifs in a gloomy Wagnerian opera.
But let me reach out to the longest afternoon of Robin Roberts' career for a performance that captures the distilled essence of the Hall of Fame legend who died in his Florida home yesterday morning after spending Wednesday night watching the Phillies beat the Cardinals.
On Sept. 6, 1952, Roberts went for his 23rd victory against the tough Boston Braves. It did not go well for Robbie. After eight innings - and why was he still in there? - it was 6-6. Robbie had allowed five earned runs on nine hits.
"Stubborn as a mule," Stan Hochman described him to MLB.com yesterday. He pitched a scoreless ninth and the game staggered into extra innings. In fact, despite allowing nine more hits for a total of 18 in a game the Phils won, 7-6, in the bottom of the 17th on a Del Ennis walkoff, Roberts hung eight more goose eggs on Boston.
Now, I want all you pitch-count advocates to cover your eyes. And if you're coaching your Little League kid to be the next 75-pitch wonder, hide the newspaper, the laptop or the iPod.
When Robin got the final out in a 1-2-3 inning - one of his few clean frames - he had faced 71 batters. With his control and riding four-seamer, the drop-and-drive righthander normally had a ton of pitches fouled off. He struck out only five. So, if you assume a conservative average of five pitches per hitter, you can also assume that Robbie's pitch count was well into the 300s. No, Sawyer didn't use him in the second game of the doubleheader. But he came back on his turn Sept. 11, and beat the Cardinals, 3-2, for No. 24 on his way to 28-7 and 30 complete games.
Roberts was running on fumes by 1961 and manager Gene Mauch was in no mood to bronze fading Hall of Fame careers, not with the dreck he was running out there in his second season. It has been variously reported through the obscuring mists of time that Mauch observed, as Robbie careened toward a 1-10 record and an October sale to the Yankees, "He's pitching like Betsy Ross." Or, "He's pitching like Dolley Madison." I had not heard Hochman's revisionist version, "He's pitching like Molly Putz." When I asked Mauch about the line decades ago, he said he couldn't remember.
Roberts was not a vindictive man by any stretch. But he did have an in-Mauch's-face moment. After being released by the Yankees, Orioles and Astros, he landed with the Cubs in July 1966 in the role of player/pitching coach for manager Leo Durocher. He began working with a tall, young righthander named Ferguson Jenkins, who had been traded to the Cubs by Phils GM John Quinn in the ill-advised acquisition of veteran righthanders Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl. Roberts was blown away by Fergie's talent.
"I went to Leo and said, 'You've got to move this kid out of the bullpen and into the rotation,' " Roberts told the salty Durocher. "He's got a heavy sinker he can throw to either corner, got a late-breaking, hard curve."
On July 15, 1966, Robbie pitched his final career complete-game victory, outpitching the Pirates' Vern Law, 5-4. Durocher gradually worked Jenkins into his rotation. On Sept. 6, Fergie defeated Phillies ace Jim Bunning, 7-2.
"All he did was win at least 20 for the next six seasons pitching in [Wrigley Field]," Robbie said.
In the fractional jargon of baseball, Robin Roberts, 83, passed away with one out in the eighth inning of a magnificently balanced and underrated life that was lived without scandal, controversy or the smallest trace of pettiness. During his 9 years as baseball coach at the University of South Florida, he turned an invisible program into a perennial NCAA Tournament team. He probably could have been an NBA backcourt man after a fabulous career at Michigan State, where he led the Spartans in field-goal percentage all 3 years and was captain as a junior and senior. But pitching was his passion.
If Rich Ashburn was His Whiteness, the pulse and personality of the Phillies' organization, Robin Roberts was its White Knight, an unassuming man who looked like Everyman, but threw the baseball like Superman, even in that long-forgotten game in which his pitch count would have been a felony even in Clark Kent's Metropolis.
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