There aren't too many people that make me get all tongue twisted when I get around them. I've never been one to wilt in the presence of celebrity, as I've been lucky to be around enough people with some level of fame that it doesn't really phase me. My friends and I went to see Conan O'Brien this weekend at The Palms, and saw Jake Long playing craps as we were walking out. Both my friends are huge Dolphins fans, but I was the one convincing them to leave him alone, as he clearly was on vacation. And what are you going to do with that pic anyway? Stick it on Facebook, and then what? Jake Long isn't adding you. So I don't ask people for autographs or pictures, as I've always thought a nice conversation is a better memory to take away from someone you admire or respect. But there are a few people that have turned me into a bumbling idiot in their presence, and one of them was Robin Roberts.
As a diehard Phillies fan since the womb, being in the presence of any Fightins legend usually makes me want to ask a billion questions. Roberts was a Phillie from 1948-61, so everything from the old right field wall at Shibe Park to the 1950 "Whiz Kids" to the argument that Richie Ashburn was the best center fielder of the 50's was within his purview. But with me and the "Springfield Rifle" it was worse, as he was also the first manager to guide USF Baseball to the NCAA Tournament, and thus he was one of the 10 most important people in history of both my favorite baseball teams. If I had to pick one person to talk baseball with for 100 hours, Rockin' Robin might be at the top of the list.
When USF was playing in the Big East Tournament in 2006 at Bright House Field in Clearwater (in what turned out to be the swan song for his former assistant and protege Eddie Cardieri), USF Iron Bulls Director Joe Tomaino mentioned that Robin Roberts was here. I naturally turn instantly into my five-year old self, and Joe T. asks if I'd like to meet him. Um, ya think? So Tomaino introduces me. "Hi, Mr. Roberts, I'm a huge Phillies fan that went to USF, so it's very nice to meet you." He shook my hand and put his arm around me, and was very kind and cordial. And then... I froze. I could have asked him about any one of a hundred topics, and he was known as a regal story teller that loved to share his interesting life. But he was so kind and so open that I didn't want to impose. As much as I wanted to pick his brain, I was too overwhelmed to keep it to just one topic, and instead just stood and watched the game with him for a inning or so. For anyone that knows me, clearly this is out of the realm of the normal. The obvious question on everyone's mind that evening was the fate of Cardieri after a disappointing season, and many of EC's old players and friends, including Roberts, had shown up to lend their support. I stayed out of the way of that, and asked what he was doing now. He said he was retired, and putting up with Tomaino as much as possible. For anyone that knows Joe T., they'll understand that's a joke told with affection. He was as normal and down-to-earth a man as you could ask to meet that also had a plaque in Cooperstown. He was so disarming that I completely lost my ability to engage in conversation. That might be a bigger accomplishment than winning 20+ each season from '50-'55.
Sometimes you get to meet your heroes, and they live up to all the expectations. Robin Roberts was that kind of man. I still don't collect autographs, but there are a few I cherish. I have all the Phillies retired numbers on a baseball, but Roberts' is the one I got in the most interesting way. Tomaino gave it to me off his desk, out of a box of two dozen he had just gotten from Robin at their last get-together. He never lost touch with either the Phillies or the Bulls, and in that way I hope to emulate him when I'm 83. I just hope my conversation skills with legends improve between now and then.