“God, I love baseball.”
Robert Redford in “The Natural” SAN FRANCISCO — Remember in that movie, when Roy Hobbs, Redford’s character, is lying in a hospital bed, a poison cheese ball in his stomach, and the doctor tells him if he plays the final game and tries to lead his team to the title, his insides could explode?
“I’m playing,” says Hobbs.
The doctor shrugs.
Only in Hollywood, right? Right. In real life, it’s not the stomach, it’s the knee. At least it will be tonight for Don Robinson, 32, who carries the World Series hopes of his Giants, which are fading, on his right leg, which is nearly gone.
Hurting? They should drive him to the mound in an ambulance. Skip the national anthem and play the theme from M*A*S*H. Never before has so much scar tissue tried to save the Fall Classic.
“I don’t pitch for tomorrow, I pitch for the moment,” says Robinson by his locker at Candlestick Park, where tonight, he could throw a curveball and crumple into a heap at any moment, his ligaments no longer surrounding the kneecap. “If it happens, it happens. They carry me off. I can’t worry about it.”
And out he goes. You might find this touchingly heroic, were it not for the fact that Robinson has had this self- destructive streak since he was 19, when he got tired of waiting for the doctor, and removed his elbow stitches with a pair of scissors.
But we’ll get to that. Redford? Alzado is more like it
First a word about our hero. Despite his “Natural” courage, Robinson — whose nickname is “Caveman” — will never be confused with Robert Redford. His midsection and Redford’s are not from the same century. Nor does Robinson have those thick, blond locks falling over his forehead. Robinson’s hair looks more like tree moss.
In fact, with the heavy beard and hairy frame, he kind of resembles a sagging Lyle Alzado. And he has the scars to prove it. It is impossible to keep track of how many times Robinson has been under the knife. His body looks like a baseball: white, with lots of red stitches. It’s a shame he won’t leave it to science. It already has the perforated edges.
In Readers Digest form, his medical highlights:
1. Elbow operation
2. Shoulder operation
3. Shoulder operation
4. Knee operation
5. Two more shoulder operations
Did we mention the time he sliced his fingers open in a car accident? Or the time he pulled his “butt muscle”? But wait. You have to get to work. So let us just concentrate on the knee, which will be heavily braced tonight, to try and absorb the weight of those pitches. How did he come to be such a mess?
“Believe it or not, it began in high school,” he says. “A football game. I was a pretty good quarterback. We were playing our biggest rival, and their team put a $100 bounty on me. Anyone who knocked me out of the game would collect $100.”
No doubt Sonny Corleone High School. Team name: the Dead Fishes.
“Anyhow, I hand the ball off to a running back, and this guy blindsides me and chops me right at the knee. I got up, though, and kept playing. We won, and he never got his $100.”
Gee. What a nice story. Great to see kids having fun. Unfortunately, 12 years later, Robinson got the bad news from a doctor: Scar tissue had been forming on the knee since that night in high school. He needed an operation.
The following year, in a game against Houston, Robinson popped the thing completely, and ever since, he has been attached to a brace whenever he takes the mound. It is the only thing keeping his ligaments from splitting off the kneecap. And it is no sure thing.
“I’ve had operations in ’77, ’79, ’81, ’83, ’85,” he says, counting them on his fingers, “every odd year.”
“It’s 1989,” someone says.
“Don’t remind me.” He’ll have no lame excuses
This is what you get in the World Series. Guys would do anything to take part. Robinson, who was 13-11 this season but pitched fewer than two innings in the National League playoffs, even considered not mentioning his pain to the team doctor. But limping around like Walter Brennan would probably give it away.
There is no doubt the Giants need him. They need something to counter the heretofore untouchable pitching of the Athletics. “If there’s one guy you want on the mound when you’re in trouble, it’s Robinson,” says Giants skipper Roger Craig.
Sure. He throws hard, has a good curveball. Besides, there are so few parts left to break.
And yet, he keeps playing. Not only that, but he’s the clubhouse clown. Never in a bad mood. He has tasted October sweetness with the Pittsburgh Pirates when they won the 1979 World Series, and he wants more. The doctors have told him of the arthritis that is coming, in the shoulder, the elbow, the knee.
He pitches anyhow.
“I’ll go as long and as hard as I can (tonight),” he says. “What happens, happens.”
You can only salute such tenacity — and hope he doesn’t collapse out there. For all he’s been through, Don Robinson deserves a happy ending, don’t you think? Or at least a year without stitches.
“What will you do after baseball?” he is asked.
“Orthopedic surgery,” he says, deadpan.