It is a date Doug DeCinces will never forget—June 6, 1976, the 32nd anniversary of D-day. The Orioles were playing a doubleheader at home against Minnesota, and DeCinces' parents, his wife Kristi and his son Tim were in the stands. Sitting with them was his grandmother, who had never seen him play.
DeCinces (pronounced duh-SIN-say) didn't appear in the first game. He was supposed to be phasing out the legendary Brooks Robinson at third base, but Robinson played the whole way in the opener. And even though he went 0 for 3 and the Orioles lost, the fans wanted more of him. "We want Brooks!" they chanted as DeCinces took the field for the nightcap. His grandmother was confused. Minutes into the game DeCinces fielded a grounder with his chest, threw late to first and was charged with an error that set up a three-run Twins rally. The chants grew louder. In the second inning DeCinces' chest was bruised by another drive. The cries from the stands were now almost deafening. In a trance, DeCinces came to bat and was caught looking at a third strike.
Then things changed for the better. DeCinces singled to lead off the fifth, slugged a two-run homer in the seventh and tripled a man home in the eighth. As he stood on third, breathing heavily from his dash around the bases, the crowd rose to cheer him. DeCinces trembled visibly. "I wanted to grab a microphone and tell the people what I thought of front-runners," he recalls thinking. Afterward reporters sought him out, but he had left the park. "I didn't know if I'd ever want to come back," he says. "I just walked away."
Most anyone who replaces a legend might feel the same way. George Selkirk, who succeeded Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig's replacement, Babe Dahlgren, are remembered almost exclusively for the men they stepped in for. Even highly successful substitutes have paid a price. Carl Yastrzemski reported to Boston in 1961 to replace the recently retired No. 9, Ted Williams. The Red Sox made a point of giving Yaz No. 8. Very subtle. No wonder he couldn't hit for the better part of a season. Bobby Murcer had four good years as a Yankee, but no one would let him forget his predecessor, Mickey Mantle. Murcer didn't have Mantle's charisma or something. In six seasons as a Yankee, Murcer was never offered an endorsement.
For DeCinces, replacing Robinson was not merely difficult; it seemed impossible. Brooks came to Baltimore in 1955, the year after the Orioles moved there from St. Louis. He grew up with the franchise. Twenty years an Oriole, 16 times a Gold Glover, a World Series hero, Robinson was a local institution. In the life of a Baltimore man, it is said, there is one job, one wife and one hero. Most often in recent years that hero was Brooks. He was dumpy, balding, pigeon-toed and slow, but his diving stops and quick-release throws made him a sure Hall of Famer. Popular? He could have been elected mayor.
Playing for three years with Robinson, first as a spear carrier and then as heir apparent, DeCinces learned that legends don't die easily. It wasn't Robinson's fault. In fact, there was no friction between the two. The problem was that Baltimore wouldn't let Brooks go, and DeCinces kept pushing himself to be the next Brooks.
The initiation is finally over. At 28 years old, DeCinces not only has come out from behind Robinson's shadow, but he is also creating a glorious image of his own. Last year he hit .286, with 28 homers and 80 RBIs, and had the American League's third-highest slugging percentage (.526). During the second half of the 1978 season he performed on a par with the best-known sluggers in baseball (see box). And with just one error in his last 72 games, he was starting to field like, well, a legend.
Even if DeCinces is unable to maintain that pace this year—after the Orioles' first nine games he had made one error and was hitting .250—his peace of mind is unlikely to be disturbed. This equanimity hasn't been easy to come by. In 25 years of major league baseball, Baltimore fans have been spoiled by the defensive excellence of the Oriole infielders: Ron Hansen, Luis Aparicio, Jerry Adair, Dave Johnson, Bobby Grich, Rich Dauer, Mark Belanger and, of course, Robinson. When DeCinces joined the club in 1973, he looked anything but smooth. At third he stood stiffly, his weight back, like Ken Dryden in the nets, and at the plate he badly missed breaking pitches with his long, looping swing. Nor was his background suited to working-class Baltimore. He is tall, dark, handsome and articulate. He was born across the street from a movie studio in Bur-bank. His aunt Gloria Winters played Penny in Sky King. DeCinces, whose father is of Italian descent, might have looked good to a Hollywood casting director, but he was a misfit in Baltimore, that hard city by the sea.
In 1976, the year DeCinces became a regular, he received nasty calls and letters, and the fans and the press descended on him, pounding away with invidious comparisons to Robinson. "Brooks could have made six consecutive errors and the fans still would have cheered him," says Ron Shapiro, a close friend and adviser to both men. "Doug could have made six great plays and one error, and they would have booed him."
DeCinces hit .234 and fielded poorly. The next season he increased his average to .259 but he was still shaky in the field with 20 errors. On Sept. 18, 1977, a crowd of 51,798 gathered in Memorial Stadium for a Thanks Brooks Day honoring their retiring hero, who had been a bit player but a gnawing presence for DeCinces in the '76 and '77 seasons. It could have been DeCinces' most trying moment if he hadn't impulsively uprooted third base and presented it to Robinson. Suddenly DeCinces' detractors were wildly applauding him. "It was a catharsis," says Shapiro. "Maybe when he took out third base he symbolically released some of the pressure. But it wasn't all gone."