ATLANTA — As his baseball playing career comes to a close, Robinson Chirinos hasn’t forgotten the advice he received two decades earlier while playing in the Venezuelan winter league.
He was 18 or 19, at the beginning of a journey that would earn him 10 years of major league service for six franchises, when Venezuelan star Edgardo Alfonzo pulled the young catcher aside.
“Let people remember you as a good person, because you’re already a good player,” Alfonzo told Chirinos. “One day, you’re going to take your uniform off, and what you did in people’s lives and how you treat people, that’s how they’re going to remember you.”
Chirinos has finally taken his uniform off.
The 38-year-old announced his retirement from Major League Baseball this week, closing a chapter that began at the turn of the century. He toiled through 10 seasons of minor league baseball, worked in the Venezuelan winter league and finally broke through to the promised land that is MLB.
But he never forgot what Alfonzo told him, so at home with his family, Chirinos recited those words as the mantra he lived by during his life — both personally and within professional baseball.
It’s what drove him to join the Baltimore Orioles in 2022 for what turned out to be his last stint in the league, and it’s what he brought to the clubhouse each day as a veteran presence on a team full of inexperienced players not much older than he was when Alfonzo shared that wisdom with him.
Now, on the other side, he thinks back on the relationships he developed more so than the games he played. He thinks of how he treated his teammates, coaches, trainers and the security guards waiting late at night for him to go home.
He hopes, when they think back on Chirinos, they’ll think of him as a person before they think of him as a player.
“You get in front of people every single day as a major league player, and you don’t know what those people are dealing with,” Chirinos said. “You can be kind, even if you went 0-for-4 and 4 Ks the day before.”
When the Orioles signed Chirinos, they always had a short-term vision for what he would provide in Baltimore. For as much as the Orioles hoped Chirinos could produce on the field during his one-year deal, they hoped his presence, along with right-hander Jordan Lyles and second baseman Rougned Odor, would help guide a young roster through the stresses of a major league season.
There was even more responsibility for Chirinos, after all. Once Adley Rutschman arrived in the majors, Chirinos became the 2019 first-overall pick’s mentor, guiding the top prospect through learning a pitching staff while also producing at the plate.
But Chirinos’ reach went far beyond Rutschman.
“One of the things I told the guys last year, ‘Make sure you guys look to your left and your right. Don’t get caught on me, me, me. You need the guy to your right or your left to win. When you’re winning, your numbers are going to be there, you know?’ ” Chirinos said.
Shortstop Jorge Mateo, who along with outfielder Anthony Santander was close to Chirinos, remembers that message clearly: “Just the importance of helping one another, helping the guys who start to come up along the way, and just to have a smile through it all.”
Chirinos recalled how last season changed when the Orioles caught fire and made an unexpected run toward the postseason before falling short. A large reason, he thinks, is how Baltimore began to play as a team.
They created a clubhouse atmosphere that was welcoming, celebrating each other’s achievements with the champion’s belt for the player of the game. The best batter would have a Polaroid photo taken and hung in the batting cage. After a home run, Chirinos and others put an Orioles chain around the hitter’s neck.
Chirinos sees many of those same qualities this year, even without him in the clubhouse to orchestrate those traditions.
“Seeing what the guys are doing this year, it doesn’t surprise me,” Chirinos said. “Because now they know what they need to do to have a great clubhouse, to play together and go out and compete with the talent the whole group have. I guarantee they’re going to win a World Series in the years to come, and that’s probably going to be the best, when I see that team win a championship and I know I had my fingerprint in that championship, because I was a little bit part of the culture they have now in the organization.”
With Chirinos gone, manager Brandon Hyde can still feel his influence percolating through the clubhouse.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Hyde said. “He is a huge part of changing the culture last year, a huge part of getting these guys in there believing they’re good enough to win in this league. Just the way he stood up in meetings, his presence, his dugout talk, I miss that. I miss having him around.”
For the next year, Chirinos told his wife, Heidy, that he looks forward being at home with her and their two sons. He’s excited to wake up in the morning and do the things he couldn’t while playing professional baseball.
But in the future?
Hyde envisions Chirinos making a return to professional baseball in a coaching role. And Chirinos allows himself to dream of that possibility in the distance, a chance to positively impact the lives — not just the careers — of a new generation of baseball players.
“Maybe in the future, I don’t know what God have for me, I would love to be a manager in the big leagues,” Chirinos said. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I care for people, I know about the game, to be able to continue to help people through the managing side I think is something I would love to do. But we’ll see.”
For the time being, though, Chirinos will focus on being a father and a husband, although he never neglected that aspect of his life despite traversing a 162-game campaign. He’d bring his sons with him to the ballpark.
And even after Chirinos left the Orioles, his influence is well-remembered. When Chirinos and his sons visited the team before a game against the Texas Rangers, he was swarmed by his former teammates.
Throughout his career, Chirinos learned that players can get caught up on themselves, on their performances, on trying to establish their place in the majors — and in doing so, sometimes miss out on the bigger picture.
But after it’s all said and done, Chirinos won’t dwell on the game so much as the experiences. He won’t remember his batting average in Baltimore or how many games the Orioles won. He’ll remember the dugout shenanigans and the team dinners and the advice from Alfonzo all those years ago.
“It’s those little things you’re going to tell your son or your grandson 20, 30 years from now,” Chirinos said, “that really make a difference in your life and other people’s lives.”