ROBIN THE BAT-MAN

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the summer of 1956, Phil Yount was living on a farm in Covington, Ind., with his wife and three young sons when an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune caught his attention.

Rocketdyne was hiring workers to test rocket engines at its field lab in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. The Cold War was heating up, the space race was about to begin and Yount was an engineer working at a plant north of Terre Haute that made heavy water for the hydrogen bomb.

He was interested in moving his family to Southern California, and Rocketdyne presented the perfect opportunity. Little did he know the impact his decision would have on his youngest child, 11-month-old Robin.

"At the time, baseball wasn't one of the main reasons for doing it," Phil said of the move.

Soon, the family was living in Woodland Hills and making the neighborhood Little League their second home. No one benefited more from the sunny weather and year-round sports than Robin, who became so good in baseball he'd play in the major leagues at 18 and end up in the Hall of Fame.

"I'm probably more surprised than a lot of people," Robin said. "It is the last thing I ever considered."

For a father who helped build powerful rocket engines and was privy to his share of national secrets, Phil Yount said there is no mystery to having a son reach the Hall of Fame.

"You put him on the field and turn him loose," he said. "They have to enjoy it. They're putting the effort in. It had never been an objective to be an all-star or whatever. The objective was trying to have him play his best. He was quite capable of doing it himself. He didn't need any help."

On the eve of Robin Yount's induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., to honor his 20-year career with the Milwaukee Brewers, friends, family members and former coaches and teammates all say Yount's days growing up in the San Fernando Valley helped mold his character.

He grew up during an era when urban sprawl had not yet reached his quiet neighborhood. Yount could ride his bicycle for hours without encountering a car. He could go horseback riding at a neighbor's house. He could explore the nearby hills with a bow and arrow, hunting for rabbits.

"I think we probably got the lizard and not the rabbit," best friend Steve Whitehead said.

Unassuming, rarely boastful and fun-seeking, Yount loved baseball but refused to sacrifice other childhood activities.

During spring break in 1973, "The Waltons" and "Hawaii Five-0" were popular TV programs, "High Plains Drifter," starring Clint Eastwood, had just been released, Levi's jeans cost $12 a pair, a dozen eggs went for 59 cents and the 17-year-old senior shortstop for Taft High was making plans for a ski trip.

Ray O'Connor, Taft's baseball coach, pleaded with Yount not to go skiing for fear of injury, even telling Yount's mother, Marion, to hide his skis.

"This is your last year," O'Connor said. "You've got scouts looking at you. An injury could cost you a lot of money."

Yount ignored the warning, went skiing and had no regrets.

"There were certain things I grew up doing since I was young and was never willing to give up--riding motorcycles, sports car racing, skiing," Yount said. "My attitude has always been things usually happen for a reason. You could get hurt taking a stroll down the street."

Whitehead said fearlessness was part of Yount's personality, whether diving for a line drive or racing a motorcycle down a steep hill.

"He had unbelievable courage," Whitehead said. "After the start of this [motorcycle] race, there was a big drop-off. He didn't slow down. He was like Evel Knievel going through the air."

The Yount family home, with its swimming pool and large backyard, was a mecca for sports activities.

Robin created his own 18-hole golf course with cans, holes and water hazards. He designed his own baseball field, where a ball hit over a tree branch was a home run and a ball hit under the branch was a double. He'd spend hours making diving catches in the pool with friends as they imagined playing in the seventh game of the World Series.

"We'd play 18 holes, then we'd pitch, then throw little tiny golf balls at each other," Whitehead said. "We had sawed-off bats and played nine innings. Then we'd go off and play at Sunrise Little League."

The Younts lived down the street from Woodland Hills Country Club. Robin and Whitehead sneaked onto the golf course so often people thought they were regulars. When Robin was 16, he made his first hole in one--unofficially.

It came on No. 6 at Woodland Hills. A group of women golfers saw it happen and wanted to publicize the feat. But Robin chose to remain anonymous, considering he wasn't supposed to be on the course.

"They started hollering, 'Let us know who you are so we can get your name in the paper,' " Robin said. "We said, 'It's OK ladies, it happens all the time. We'll keep going.' It took me 20 years later, but I made another hole in one."

Yount was a Little League all-star, but his small size hardly stamped him as a future high school star. O'Connor knew of him because Robin's brother, Larry, pitched at Taft and was in the minor leagues.

Robin committed 13 errors in his junior season, but O'Connor realized that most high school shortstops couldn't reach the balls Yount got to.

The summer before his senior year was a turning point for Yount. He followed Larry in the minor leagues and grew to 6 feet.

"He saw he was every bit as good as any of the guys who were playing [in the minors]," O'Connor said.

Dozens of scouts started showing up at Taft games the next season, and they did not leave disappointed.

"He was unbelievable," Whitehead said. "I couldn't count the times on one hand that he struck out. He had power to right, which you didn't see in high school. He had phenomenal range at shortstop and an arm you couldn't believe. And he could motor too."

Yount also possessed an uncommon level of maturity and determination for a teenager.

"I remember we were playing Reseda," O'Connor said. "They were ahead of us in the seventh inning, 1-0. The batter in front of Robin walked and as Robin went by he said, 'Relax, Coach, this one is in the bag,' and he hit the ball over the fence. When he came back, he wasn't gloating. He just said, 'I made up my mind they weren't going to beat us.' "

Pat Visciglia, a high school teammate, marveled at Yount's ability to tune out the scouts.

"He was probably the most unassuming great player that I've ever seen," he said. "I remember getting off the bus one time and I don't remember seeing so many scouts in my life. He'd get off and didn't flinch. He would never play for the scouts, but you knew you were around somebody who was special."

Yount was selected City Section player of the year in 1973 after hitting .455. He was the third player taken in the amateur draft behind Texas high school pitcher David Clyde and catcher John Stearns of the University of Colorado.

He signed with the Brewers, spent a couple of months in the minors, then at 18 became the Brewers' starting shortstop in 1974 on his way to 3,142 hits and the Hall of Fame.

Yount's versatility and athleticism are reflected by his joining Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Hank Greenberg as the only players in major league history to be named most valuable player at two positions.

Yount was the American League MVP as a shortstop in 1982, when he hit a career-best .331 with 29 home runs and 114 runs batted in. He was the prototype for the power-hitting, RBI-producing shortstops that came of age in the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1989, he was named MVP as a center fielder after batting .318 with 21 home runs and 103 RBIs.

Yount was a fixture in Milwaukee for 20 years. When he filed for free agency after the 1989 season, a circuit judge helped organize a letter-writing campaign to convince Yount to stay.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for Yount was the Brewers' loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the 1982 World Series, their only appearance in club history.

"It's the one thing that bothers Robin to this day--I got a World Series ring and he didn't," said Kelly Paris, the backup shortstop to Yount in high school and a former Cardinal.

Paris, who played with Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken Jr. and Dave Concepcion in the majors, still remembers a small but important gesture Yount made the year after graduating from Taft.

"He was in town playing against the Angels and came out to our playoff game," Paris said. "A lot of guys would have forgotten [their] old buddies. It showed me that this guy never forgot where he came from."

Terry Miller, a high school teammate who played basketball at Cal State Northridge, said Yount's senior year was an exciting time for his teammates.

"We'd have 30, 40 scouts at practices," Miller said. "And the scouts would talk to us and ask us questions about Robin. We were 17, 18 years old. The scouts could tell he could be something else. We just thought he was another ballplayer doing well. We didn't know the potential he really had."

Miller's wife frequently reminds him about Yount.

"She lived across the street from him and had this huge crush," Miller said. "Every time we go to see her folks, she goes, 'You know, I could have been married to Robin Yount, Hall of Famer.' "

Yount, who lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz., with his wife and four teenage children, will be honored next month at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. He has invited his former Little League coach, Clement Cohen, to join him.

Cohen used to turn his car lights on to illuminate the Taft backstop at night while pitching to a young Yount.

"I used to say, 'Why don't you come to watch this kid play? You'll see something special,' " Cohen said. "He was special."

* Part III: Sunday, George Brett.

ROBIN YOUNT BY THE NUMBERS

3,142: Career hits (15th overall)

2: MVP awards, one as a shortstop (1982), one as a center fielder (1989)

3: Number of players to win MVP at two positions (Yount, Stan Musial, Hank Greenberg)

36: Age when he got 3,000th hit, third-youngest all-time

.344: Batting average in 17 postseason games.

1: Including Yount, number of Milwaukee Brewers in the Hall of Fame.

583: Career doubles (12th all-time)

11,008: Career at-bats (sixth all-time)

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