Thursday, August 02, 2007

And Here’s to You Mr. Robinson, My Friend

Sports of The Times
August 2, 2007

Son. That’s what Bill Robinson called Darryl Strawberry. Not Darryl or Straw or any street variations. Son. On days when Darryl wasn’t quite ready to play, Bill would materialize in front of Darryl’s locker, using that deep, melodious voice.

“When I dogged it,” Strawberry was saying the other day, in grief, “Bill would get all over my butt, but he never yelled. He said, ‘You’re the best in this business.’ He always called me ‘son,’ like he was my father.”

The Mets called him Uncle Bill, and he was a brother to many other people, including me. He earned four World Series rings with four different teams and, who knows, he might have earned another one as the Dodgers’ minor league instructor, but he died in his hotel room Sunday at age 64, and a lot of us are in pain.

“Bill was an incredibly patriarchal person,” said Ron Darling, who pitched for the Mets when Robinson was the hitting instructor in 1986, and is now an insightful commentator. “Bill tried to pass it on to Darryl,” Darling added. “He’d put his arm around him. Darryl wasn’t ready, and Darryl knows it.”

Darryl was the prodigal son that everybody expected to die young. But he has beaten back stomach cancer and intemperance and legal issues to run an autism foundation, based in St. Louis. Now, Strawberry is in New York, waiting to attend Robinson’s funeral Saturday at the Gloucester County Community Church in Sewell, N.J., glad that his surrogate father got to see him sober and healthy.

“He loved me so much,” Darryl said. It was an unconditional love, far beyond the immense talent Strawberry alternately brandished and squandered.

The Yankees envisioned Bill Robinson as that kind of force, trading Clete Boyer, their nimble third baseman, to get Bill to play right field for the 1967 season. Michael Burke, one of the grandest executives in sports, could not curb his enthusiasm, and somehow the title of the black Roger Maris was foisted on Robinson, expectations he could not fulfill. In a sport of failure, Robinson hit .196 and .240 and .171 with the Yankees. I have never seen a player fail with more dignity.

Bill had heard a mantra from the Dodgers’ Willie Davis, “It’s not my life, and it’s not my wife, so why worry?” He repeated it, sharing his love for his strong and beautiful wife, Mary, and their two children, Bill and Kelley Ann. We became friends, in ways I don’t think writers and players do these days, what with the huge gap in income, and the new edge between athletes and the news media.

In the spring of 1968, Bill was worried about how to get his pregnant wife, their little boy and their car up from Florida, so I volunteered to drive, thereby saving myself a plane ticket. As it happened, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated that day, and all hell broke loose. When we caught up with the Yankees in Richmond, Va., Bill was pacing outside the team hotel, a worried husband.

After three years of failure, Robinson wound up in Syracuse, but he fought his way back, first with the Phillies, then with the Pirates, earning his first ring as an important member of that boisterous we are fam-a-lee team of 1979. He remained the same person — straight, religious, mindful.

Bill invited my 11-year-old son into the Pirates’ clubhouse after a spring exhibition game in 1981. Suddenly a naked Dave Parker and Bill Madlock emerged from the shower, wearing jewelry and nothing else, and talking the normal, hilarious, scatological trash. In that deep voice, Bill told my son, “Uh, David, maybe you’d better wait outside.”

After batting .258 in 1,472 games, Robinson was hired by the Mets in 1985. “Bill insisted on being called hitting instructor,” Keith Hernandez, another sharp commentator, said. “He wouldn’t let you call him batting coach.

“He told me: ‘I can’t teach you anything, you’re a batting champion, you know what you do. Just tell me what to look for,’ ” Hernandez added.

“Bill would get on you, but he wouldn’t raise his voice,” Mookie Wilson, who didn’t need much prodding, said. “Bill was more subtle than that.”

“He was able to have a close family in a business that does not encourage it,” Darling said, adding, “He did not allow you to go on the field without your full uniform. He’d make you tuck in your shirt.”

Then Darling remembered a brawl or three when Robinson was in the middle of the pile.

The Mets won the 1986 World Series — Bill’s second ring — and then underachieved, which led Frank Cashen, the general manager, to dismiss Bill and Sam Perlozzo as a crude warning to Manager Davey Johnson. Robinson could have handled the Mets better than a few lummoxes who came later, but a managing job never happened.

He earned a third ring as a minor league instructor with the Yankees, and a fourth ring in 2003 as the hitting instructor with the improbable Florida Marlins. I got to hug him and Mary outside the clubhouse during that Series. I’d like to say to the fans, the next time you’re tempted to complain about all the rich bums in baseball, think about my friend, who called Darryl Strawberry son.



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