Backroads and Ballplayers #7
Stories of the famous and not-so-famous men and women from the days when baseball was "Arkansas' Game." Always free and always short enough to finish in one cup of coffee.
Hogs win the SEC Championship and A Tribute to Brooks…
Some may say that the 2023 Razorback baseball team played far above expectations. Those “experts” who predicted the Hogs would finish fourth in the West would certainly agree. Here in Arkansas, we “expect” to contend for the SEC title every year. Rebuilding is not an acceptable excuse.
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We are a baseball state, and this is our sport. We are going to fill Baum-Walker Stadium every weekend and “it just means more,” right? Somehow, I think this year is different. Our hopes may have been built on habit rather than logic, and in hindsight, this season seems somehow special…almost magical! There will be those who say it was Dave Van Horn and his staff’s best coaching job and there will probably be some hardware to verify that analysis.
Things looked bleak when the Hogs were swept at Georgia the weekend of April 20. At that time the Bulldogs were a last-place team. Perhaps most of us thought after that disaster in Athens, Georgia, that LSU had the SEC West title in the bag, but there was one strange previous issue that will haunt the Tigers forever, or at least until next week.
Two weeks earlier on Easter weekend, with no day for a makeup game, LSU’s Saturday game with South Carolina had been canceled because of rain. The Tigers continued the remainder of the season having played one less game than the Razorbacks. If both teams finished with the same number of wins, LSU would win the SEC-West based on winning percentage.
On Saturday, May 20, the conference season’s last day, the Tigers had only to beat Georgia to not only claim the West crown but win the SEC outright. Georgia scored six runs in the first four innings and prevailed 9—5. Although the Razorbacks lost at Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Florida shared the SEC Championship and the Hogs won the West outright.
The Arkansas coaches consistently pulled the right strings throughout the spring marred by what seemed to be season-threatening injuries. Closer Brady Tygart missed most of the SEC conference season with a strained elbow. Middle-of-the-lineup slugger, Jared Wegner missed 14 conference games with pins in a broken thumb. Dependable center fielder and leadoff hitter, Tavian Josenberger missed five games with a hamstring issue, and returning second baseman Peyton Stovall missed the last nine SEC games due to a torn labrum that ultimately finished his year.
I am not going to offer any math to explain how this championship happened with an almost completely rebuilt team and key players injured for much of the SEC campaign. Obviously, players like Caleb Cali and Peyton Holt, who were inserted for injured starters, played extremely well. Cali, who did not play at all in the opening series at Auburn, may have gone from the end of the bench to All-SEC recognition. Despite the unexpected performance by players not projected as starters, the Hogs’ offensive stats do not look like a championship contender. I will let you figure out how it happened.
Razorbacks baseball rank in SEC games:
Batting Average 11th
Slugging % 13th
Runs Scored 8th
On Base % 10th
Baseball men like to say teams win with pitching and defense. There must be something to that since the Hogs scored fewer runs than half the teams in the conference.
Hagen Smith was second in the SEC in pitching wins with 5. Brady Tygart came back from an elbow injury to start three key games down the stretch and Hunter Hollan and Will McEntire became valuable “inning eaters” when the pitching staff was short-handed. Freshman Gabe Wood recorded five saves, third among SEC relief pitchers. The Hogs led the SEC in fielding percentage and double plays. The pitching and fielding stats look more like an SEC Champion.
ERA 2nd (4.82)
Saves 1st (11)
Fielding % 1st (.986)
Saves 1st (11)
Tennessee, the 2022 SEC Champs, finished fourth in the East. The previous two National Champions, Ole Miss and Mississippi State finished the 2023 season with the conference’s worst won-loss records and will watch the SEC Tournament from home. The Arkansas Razorbacks, faced with a total rebuild, are the 2023 SEC Champions.
The lineups for the final series of 2022 and 2023 are listed below:
Final weekend 2023 …… Final weekend 2022
c- Parker Rowland - Michael Turner
1b - Brady Slavens - Peyton Stovall
2b - Peyton Holt - Robert Moore
3b - Caleb Cali - Cayden Wallace
ss - John Bolton - Jalen Battles
lf - Jared Wegner - Zack Gregory
cf - Tavian Josenberger - Braydon Webb
rf - Jace Bohrofen - Chris Lanzilli
dh - Kendall Diggs - Brady Slavens
sp - H. Smith, B. Tygart, H. Hollan —W. McEntire, C. Noland, J. Wiggins
A Birthday Tribute to Brooks Robinson
“When fans asked Brooks Robinson for his autograph, he complied, while finding out how many kids you have, what your dad does, where you live, how old you are, and if you have a dog.” —Chuck Thompson, Baltimore Orioles Broadcaster
I am writing the second part of this post on Brooks Robinson’s 86th birthday, May 18, 2023. I have some other things on my mind, but nothing trumps Brooks’ birthday.
I met Brooks Robinson at a baseball card show sometime in the late 1980s, and despite his induction to the Hall of Fame a few years earlier, the autograph line moved at a leisurely pace. Actually, it moved at Brooks’ discretion.
“Where are you from,” he asked. “Yeah Russellville, I remember running in a track meet in Russellville,” he chuckled. “At Little Rock High School (Little Rock Central) we had great track teams. There was no high school baseball, so track was my only spring choice. We had great sprinters, good hurdlers, an outstanding mile guy, and very good field events men. If you weren’t any good at any of those you ran the 880 Yard Run. I ran the 880,” Brooks said with a laugh. That photo “To Jim a fellow Arky,” sits on my desk.
Having a “favorite” baseball player is risky business. Along with being emotionally attached to his success and failure on the field, comes the vulnerability of being personally dispirited by some character flaw you feel obligated to defend.
The ultimate risk comes when you actually meet the person behind your adulation. Often, in a long autograph line or chance encounter, the reality of the handshake and a sentence you practiced to introduce yourself, fall far short of your expectations. However, ask an Arkansas baseball fan over 60 years old about Brooks Robinson. In fact, ask anyone of any age. Now 86 years old and long retired, Brooks Robinson carries the affection of an entire state and never seems to disappoint.
Brooks Calbert Robinson Sr. was born in the Pope County version of Wilson, Arkansas, in 1914, the same year and about a mile down the road from the birthplace of future major league pitching great Ellis Kinder. After the flood of 1927 and the Great Depression, the Kinders survived in Wilson picking cotton, but with no such prospects, Brooks Robinson Sr. moved with his widowed mother to Little Rock, married, and settled into city life in a quiet neighborhood near the newly constructed Lamar Porter Field. The Brooks Robinsons welcomed Brooks Calbert Robinson Jr. on May 18, 1937.
Brooks Jr. grew up a few blocks from Lamar Porter Field in a time when summer revolved around baseball fields, ice cream stands, and playing outside from morning until dark. It was a lifestyle perfectly suited to Brooks Robinson Jr.
By his teens, Robinson was a promising big-league prospect. Brooks signed with the Baltimore Orioles, two days after graduation. It must have been the right choice. He spent the next 23 seasons in the Orioles organization. During the first five of those seasons, he spent at least part of the summer in Baltimore’s minor league system before his hitting caught up with his exceptional defense. “I could field as long as I can remember, but hitting has been a struggle all my life.”
Generally regarded as the most outstanding defensive third baseman of all time, Brooks was an 18-time All-Star and winner of 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards. He led the Orioles to six postseasons, including two World Series Championships. In 1964, Robinson took home American League MVP honors, putting up the finest offensive season of his career, leading the league with 118 RBI.
Perhaps his finest hour was the 1970 World Series. Although he later suggested that winning the Orioles’ first title in 1966 was his fondest memory in baseball, it was the 1970 World Series that solidified his place among the all-time greats in baseball history. That fall classic, with various generations of Arkansans glued to their televisions to watch their home state hero, Brooks’ solidified his stature as Arkansas’ favorite baseball son. Like so many of my baseball generation I can still see him backhanding a hard-hit ground ball behind third, and somehow pivoting, leaping, and throwing out the startled runner by a step. Reds manager Sparky Anderson would later quip, “I’m beginning to see Brooks Robinson in my sleep. If I dropped a paper plate, he would pick it up on one hop and throw me out.”
Brooks retired in 1977. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983 with pitcher Juan Marichal and fellow Arkansan George Kell. On that July day in 1983, Brooks Robinson received baseball’s highest honor. Somehow, knowing Brooks, I think he might be most proud of earning the admiration and affection of his home state.
He’s still a folk hero in Arkansas; He could have beaten me for governor if he had decided to run. It would have been no contest — a real lay-down.” – President Bill Clinton (1993)
We all knew Brooks was a gifted baseball player, but the thing we remember most is that he was a great teammate and a special guy. He never forgot his childhood friends and we never forgot him. Brooks almost always made our high school reunions and stayed in touch with his buddies from Pulaski Jr. High. I feel very fortunate to have a great relationship with Brooks. He is the best of the best in all aspects of life. —Childhood Friend Robert Nosari
I was 16 when Brooks dominated the 1970 World Series. I think through all of the 1960s and into the ’70s most if not all Arkansans considered the Baltimore Orioles their second team after the Cardinals. This feeling reached a crescendo in game one of the 1970 World Series when Brooks put on such a fantastic fielding display. When he went far wide of third to snag the liner by Lee May and then threw to first, thousands at home stood from their seats along with the crowd at the ballpark. —Mike Dugan, Chairman, Hot Springs Baseball Weekend
“Brooks Robinson is a goodwill ambassador for his state who inspires youth everywhere, especially in Arkansas.” —Governor Winthrop Rockefeller (1970)
When most of us think of Brooks Robinson, we think of his outstanding career with the Baltimore Orioles and his amazing MLB accomplishments, I think of a man who selflessly served his nation in the U.S. Army, whose hard work put him on the Mt. Rushmore of Arkansas athletics. —Congressman Steve Womack
I shall never forget pitching against a future Hall of Famer. I sent him a photo later and told him the story of me pitching against him. He was gracious and sent it back with a kind note. If there were scouts in the stands that night, I helped Brooks get to the majors. Brooks is a good man. —Don Duren Historian and Author
Like so many Arkansans of my age and older, my favorite baseball team has always been the Cardinals. But my American League team has always been the Orioles, and that’s because my father would constantly note when I was a boy that Brooks Robinson was from Arkansas. I think all Arkansas baseball fans still take great pride in the fact that Brooks hailed from here. —Rex Nelson, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Brooks Robinson’s loyalty to his team is something we don’t see in sports today, and his generous spirit and grit represent what it truly means to be an Arkansan, through and through. —Senator Tom Cotton
Brooks Robinson is an ordinary-looking man who might have worked in a bank or sold cars but instead played a third base that defied logic and all physical laws. Like if Tom Hanks played basketball like Michael Jordan. The most amazing thing about him is that after about 30 years of living in his hometown, among people who know and have had dealings with him, I’ve never met anyone with a qualm or doubt about Mr. Robinson’s authenticity or generosity. He seems to me a living Boy’s Life cover, the epitome of decency and a hero of our country. —Philip Martin, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Happy Birthday Brooks, and thanks for the memories.
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Brooks Robinson, the Greatest Third Baseman ever, No Contest!!!!!!
Great article to one of Arkansas’s finest