Tim Nordbrook's "Aha!" moment came a few games into his rookie season, part of a commonplace baseball activity that's often taken for granted. The 25-year-old shortstop had just ranged into the hole to grab a ground ball, then thrown the batter out at first base. Orioles infielders were whipping the ball around the horn when the native Baltimorean got an attaboy from third baseman Brooks Robinson, his childhood idol.
"I turn to throw it to Brooksie and Brooksie says, 'Great play, Nordy.' It was like time stopped and the ball was going click-click-click (in slow motion)," remembers Nordbrook, a Loyola High School product who spent half his six-year major league career with the O's. "I wanted to tell him about watching him in '66 and '70 in the World Series, all the times I saw him at Memorial Stadium, all those memories. Finally (the ball) hit his glove, and everything went back to normal. But I remember having to compose myself and tell myself to relax. When Brooks Robinson says, 'Great play,' it threw me to the ground. He was the greatest I've ever seen, telling me I made a good play? Wow."
Nordbrook was a ninth-round draft pick of the Orioles in 1970, part of a pipeline of talent - guys like Gene Heiser, Chuck Scrivener and George Kazmarek - from Baltimore's amateur sandlots under legendary coaches like Walter Youse and Sheriff Fowble. Some observers expected him to be drafted out of high school, but Nordbrook opted to go to Loyola University in New Orleans, where he followed his other passion, basketball.
"My sport was basketball, and then I held Pistol Pete (Maravich) to 52 points and realized I better get back to baseball," Nordbrook joked after a recent Orioles Alumni Autograph Series appearance at Camden Yards. Former Orioles appear in the MASN tent on Eutaw Street before each Monday and Thursday home games from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Participants are not announced in advance, but spend time interacting with fans and signing autographs for free.
The Orioles gladly drafted the slick-fielding infielder, who wasted little time in reporting to the team's Single-A Stockton affiliate in the California League, the first of three minor league stops in his first pro season. When he was weighing the Orioles' contract offer, Nordbrook sought out another Charm City legend, longtime WFBR-AM sportscaster Charley Eckman, the former NBA referee and coach whose penchant for straight shooting made him a media icon.
"The money they were talking about, well, that was something I didn't know too much about," said Nordbrook. "Charley led me down the right road - he just told me, 'Start playing.' With that help and the fact that I always did want to play, it was like a culmination of a long journey. I knew I wasn't going to be a high draft choice, so I knew it wasn't going to be a lot of money. Looking back on it, I can see where it was more significant than the credit I gave it."
Back then, of course, there were no mock drafts, Internet scouting reports or baseball-specific cable television channels. Nordbrook, now 61, considered it an honor to be drafted by his hometown team in an era where winning seasons and postseason appearances were routine.
"It was a legacy. We had guys in the minors who could have pitched for most major league clubs. We had guys winning 16 and 19 games in Triple-A for two or three years, but they can't get by (Jim) Palmer, (Mike) Cuellar, (Dave) McNally, (Pat) Dobson - you can go on and on," he said. "Playing next to Brooksie, that was the biggest thing. It would be like a kid today, growing up and playing next to Derek Jeter. He was just my favorite player and then one day, I was playing next to him. I could never get over that."
Nordbrook's Orioles career wasn't long - he batted .183 with one RBI in 73 games over parts of three seasons before being sold to the California Angels on Sept. 9 1976. He also played with the Chicago White Sox, Toronto and Milwaukee, batting .178 with a double, a triple, three RBIs and four stolen bases in 128 career games. His pro career ended in 1982 when he was called on to pitch an inning for Single-A Pikeville, the Brewers Appalachian League affiliate he was managing. He skippered for three seasons in the Milwaukee organization, but enjoyed working as a roving infield instructor for the Brewers for seven years much more.
While he loved playing for Earl Weaver, Nordbrook was unlike his first major league manager, who often told his charges they were going to war once spring training was over. Nordbrook wasn't prone to Weaver's emotional outbursts.
"I didn't like the Earl Weaver syndrome, getting mad at the umpires and blowing up," Nordbrook said. "Everybody wanted Earl Weaver as a manager, and I wasn't into that. But I loved to teach, instruct, and that's why I got into high school after my playing and managing days."
Back in Baltimore, Nordbrook returned to his role as a teacher, managing high school ball at Loch Raven and his alma mater. He's a familiar face when the Orioles need a former player to represent the team at recreational league clinics or youth baseball opening days. When he's not on the diamond, Nordbrook can be found following his son's lacrosse team or helping a friend run Chops Restaurant & Lounge at Four Corners in Phoenix.
"I loved working with the kids, and I still do," Nordbrook said. "I instruct, I do clinics. I'm not all-day like I used to be six days a week, but I love the rec council baseball teams and all that. The older you get, you remember just how lucky you were. And I was lucky. I've got a lot to give back."