The condolence calls and texts started coming in Tuesday night, steady and sad. “Just wanted to send a note letting you know I was thinking of you.” “I just heard.” “I just wanted to say I’m so sorry. I know what he meant to you.”

The messages were about Brooks Robinson — Mr. Oriole himself — who died Tuesday at 86, taking an entire city’s heart with him. I only met him once, years ago, and corresponded with him briefly. But the loss still feels momentous, like I’m grieving a beloved family member. After all, I did name my kid after him.

Though I didn’t really know No. 5, I’m proud that I once got the chance to tell him that, as an athlete and as a man, he formed an indelible link between my two great loves — the one I lost and the one I live for.

I’ve written before about how my son, who just turned 10, came to be called Brooks Robinson Streeter-Zervitz, but the short version is that my late husband, Scott Zervitz, was one of the original Brooks’ biggest fans. He met him as a kid, although the third baseman loomed so large in our Baltimorean lives, I’m pretty sure everybody did. Brooks always seemed to be out there giving his time, doing meet and greets and talking to kids. He belonged to Baltimore: He loved it here and we loved him back.

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My personal brush with Brooks came in 1985, when he presented me with a citywide award for some play I’d written for eighth-grade history class. (I just got chills realizing that Brooks Robinson probably handed me my first writing prize.) What I remember most about the moment was his warm congratulations and handshake. He was so sincere about being proud of me that I could almost have believed he’d read my work.

I know he didn’t. But he made me want to believe that.

For Scott, Brooks’ appeal was about both his athleticism and his character. He told me about how when Frank Robinson joined the Orioles in 1965, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and a racial reckoning that mirrors current happenings, Brooks, the star of the team, made a point of befriending Frank. Scott was impressed that this white guy from Arkansas made it known that he accepted this Black man and set the tone for how Frank was going to be treated.

“He didn’t have to do that,” Scott told me, “but he did.”

Years later, when Scott married me, a Black lady, and we brought a beautiful little baby into our home and hearts, there was only one choice for a name. It’s a really, really long name, and one I expected Scott would be here to explain to him. But he’s not. He died suddenly when Brooks was not quite 2, and I was left, bereft and numb, to keep alive for my son the memory of the man who named him, and educate him on the man he was named after.

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Leslie Gray Streeter and her son, Brooks, in front of a statue of his namesake outside of Camden Yards. (Josh Zervitz)

I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that — how I was going to do anything, really, because widowhood is absolutely terrible and helpless. I started with the send-off, burying my husband in a bright orange No. 5 jersey so a totem of his hero and his son would follow him into the eternal postgame. Then, at the suggestion of my friend Dan Connolly, who covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun at the time, I penned a letter to Brooks Robinson — the first one — explaining my late husband’s fandom and why he’d meant so much to him, and why he now meant so much to me.

Not long after, I slid a long manila envelope out of my Florida mailbox. It held a glossy classic photo of the legendary player with the words “Brooks: I’m honored you have my name. Hope to say hello one day.” I could barely make it into the house, I was crying so hard. I remember my Brooks, who was 3 years old, looking at me like I was crazy as I tried to explain who the note was from and that he was named after this man. I promised he was going to get it eventually.

From then on, that was my mission. The next year, we went to his first Orioles game at Camden Yards, posing in front of the Brooks Robinson statue in front of the stadium. “Look! Brooks Robinson!” I said.

“That’s not me!” my Brooks said, wrinkling his nose. I had some more educating to do, obviously. Between me, family members and, eventually, readers, we amassed bobbleheads, baseball cards and posters, and my Brooks began to understand that his mother was not actually crazy. This other guy was important. Transcendent. Larger than life.

It will always be one of my greatest regrets, then, that the original Brooks’ hope that he and my kid would one day say hello to each other was never to be, at least not in person. Time got away from me, and I must be forgiven for forgetting that, as legendary as he was, Brooks Robinson was not an infinite resource. But there was one moment in 2020, in the early throes of the pandemic, when Brookses collided, if only on Zoom.

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Leslie’s son, Brooks, with all the other Brookses on a 2020 Zoom call. (Leslie Gray Streeter)

We were asked to be part of a virtual birthday party for the baseball great as one of several families around the country who had named their children after him. My Brooks sat in our Florida living room, my laptop next to him, watching Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. laugh and laud their friend and listen to tributes from well-wishers.

Soon it was time for him and all the other little Brookses to wave at their namesake and wish him happy birthday. My God, the smile on Brooks Robinson’s face, looking out through a computer screen at all the kids who represented the mark he’d made on generations just by playing ball and being a good man. My kid smiled back at him, like he finally got what he was a part of.

“They’re all named Brooks!” he squealed.

Now we’re back in the old hometown, and my Brooks has become quite the athlete. I swear I tried not to push baseball on him, but he gravitated to it anyway. The first time he played Little League, one of his coaches called me over.

“Can’t wait till you see what number he’s wearing,” he said, but I already knew it was 5, as it has continued to be every year. Brooks Robinson will never get to see my Brooks play ball. But every time the kid wears that number on his back, I’d like to think a little bit of the original lives on.

leslie.streeter@thebaltimorebanner.com

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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