News & Politics

Prime Time with the Nationals’ Frank Robinson

As he manages what is likely to be his last team, Nationals skipper Frank Robinson is trying to instill in one more generation of players the toughness and passion for the game that made him a legend.

Carl M. Cannon is White House correspondent for National Journal and a lifelong baseball fan. He wrote about Cal Ripken in the April Washingtonian.

During a modest Nationals winning streak in mid-June, a thunderstorm washed out the pregame batting practice, and players milled about the clubhouse eating sandwiches and watching World Cup soccer. The boredom was broken by what appeared to be a mad motorcycle delivery man.

The leather-clad dervish ran through the clubhouse and took a swan dive onto a metal table, scattering magazines and newspapers and landing with a crash on the concrete floor.

The biker then arose slowly, removing the black helmet, black jacket, and black motorcycle boots. Underneath was a uniform, and under the uniform was a Nats player, Damian Jackson.

“Geez,” said a team official. “I’m glad Frank didn’t see that.”

He’s talking about Nationals manager Frank Robinson, and having just spent 40 minutes in Robinson’s office, I’m thinking the same thing.

I know that Robby, a legendary hard-ass in his day, is supposed to be mellowing at 70 years of age. But I also know that Robinson nearly came to blows with Angels skipper Mike Scioscia last year at the tender age of 69. “I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me,” Robinson said later. “I am the intimidator.”

And I know that in a profession so cut-throat that it gave the world the aphorism “Nice guys finish last,” Robinson has always stood out as a guy so obsessed with winning that his peers found him a little scary.

“I always played hard,” Robinson tells me in one of the great understatements in sports. In his autobiography, Frank put it this way: “I never relaxed on a ball field . . . and I believed everyone should play the way I did, which was simply to win any way you could within the rules.”

Today, Jose Cardenal, assistant to the general manager, calls Robinson “a great human being . . . one of my best buddies.” But when he played against Robinson in the 1960s and ’70s, Cardenal wouldn’t even approach him. “I was afraid to talk to him,” Cardenal says. “The way he kept that ‘game face’ on—people like that you leave alone. That’s when baseball used to be baseball.”

It still is, of course, even if the financial structure of the game makes millionaires out of role players. And it’s still better to win—especially if you play for Frank Robinson.

“You have to understand who you are playing for,” says Damian Jackson, a journeyman who leads the team in tattoos and not much else. “You are playing for one of the greatest players of all time. Everybody can’t be Frank Robinson, and he knows that. He doesn’t really demand that. But he does have high expectations, and he expects you to play this game a certain way—and he hates to lose.”

On the night of Jackson’s prank, the Nats pull out an unlikely and exhilarating victory, winning 9–8 in 12 innings after a rain delay. In the clubhouse afterward, well after midnight, Robinson himself dons the motorcycle gear—it was owned by Nats free-spirited bullpen coach and Harley-Davidson rider John Wetteland—and walks around the room, calling out to the players as they laugh along. “Hey, Big Nasty,” Robinson says, invoking his nickname for lanky right-handed pitcher John Patterson. “You want a ride?”

Robinson’s own ride in baseball may finally be winding to an end. He knows it, even as he insists he’s got four or five more years in him, either as a field manager or in the front office. In the most basic of all of baseball’s unforgiving stats—win-loss record—Robinson has not proven as successful a manager as he was a player. Nonetheless, as he manages what is likely to be his last team, Robinson is trying to instill in one more generation of young players a sense of how to play baseball right: hard, smart, and with an old-school respect for the sport.

As we talk before a game, Robinson is relaxed and open. He’ll parse words with you, he’ll debate baseball with you, but mainly what comes through is a deep love of baseball and affection for his current collection of vagabonds who are trying like hell to win games for a manager who was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown before they were out of Little League.

“There’s no reason Washington can’t be a good baseball town, but it depends on the team you put on the field,” he says. “The fans are excited about wanting a winner, and management doesn’t just want to be respectable but to win. I think I can help with that, but the talent isn’t all here yet.”

If last summer was magical, with the team overachieving before a late-season collapse that brought it back to earth, then 2006 is a weird transition year for a group of players who don’t quite know where they are headed. According to rumor, virtually every player besides young stars Chad Cordero and Ryan Zimmerman is trade bait. Robinson’s feelings of job security were undermined when his former Orioles teammate—and longtime rival—Davey Johnson was mysteriously hired as a Nats “consultant.”

And so Washington’s Nationals haven’t really taken to their city yet. The locker room is full of Californian and Latin American players transplanted from Montreal. Many don’t know their way around DC. Horror stories abound of players taking hours to reach the stadium from downtown. Frank Robinson’s own wife and children live in Los Angeles, although they visit regularly, and when Frank is asked where he lives, he says it’s up Connecticut Avenue near the zoo. “I thought he lived in Georgetown,” said one of the team’s publicists, also a newcomer to Washington. Robinson’s face lights up, however, when asked for his favorite restaurant: Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

One benefit of the upheaval is that Frank and his team of baseball orphans seem to have bonded. An example came May 25 in a thriller at RFK won by the home team 8–5, but not before Robinson had to pull his catcher, Matthew LeCroy, in midinning. The move was unheard of but necessary: With his first two catchers injured, Robinson had turned to “emergency” catcher LeCroy only to watch as the Houston Astros ran wild on him, stealing seven bases as LeCroy’s throws were late, weak, and off the mark—two landing in center field. So Robinson did the unthinkable, asking the umpires for time and inserting bullpen catcher Robert Fick.

LeCroy was stoic. “I’m man enough to take it,” he said after the game. “If my daddy was managing this team, I’m sure he would have done the same thing.” It pained Robinson all the more because LeCroy acted with such class. When reporters told him about LeCroy’s remarks, Robinson said, “I should have called his father and told him to do it.”

But the joke fell flat because Robinson had tears in his eyes.

It turns out there is crying in baseball—and from one of the toughest dudes ever to wear the uniform.

Frank Robinson was born on August 31, 1935, in Beaumont, Texas, but learned to play baseball in Oakland, California, after his large family moved there during the Great Depression. Frank fell under the tutelage of legendary George Powles, who coached baseball and basketball in Oakland, producing Hall of Famers in two sports. At McClymonds High School, Powles’s star hoopster was future Boston Celtics great Bill Russell (Robinson played guard on that team), and in baseball the McClymonds alums included future major-leaguers Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, and Robinson.

Robinson reveres Powles, but if you ask him who taught him to play baseball, he’ll tell you he picked up the game himself. He didn’t copy popular big-leaguers or imagine, the way most boys do, being one of them. “Who did I want to be? No one,” he says. Pointing at his chest, Frank adds, “I was always me.”

The youngest of ten children, Robinson decided from about six years of age that baseball was the most important thing in his life. He was always good enough to play with older boys, and he worried his mother by playing through the dinner hour and coming home after dark. Just leave the light on, he told her, and something on the stove. “As long as there’s light,” he said, “I’m gonna play ball.”

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947, when Frank was 11 years old. The man destined to become the first black manager had only a vague impression of the significance of Jackie Robinson’s feat. Living in a town that was white, Latino, and black—and playing ball with kids of all races—Frank recalls being only dimly aware of segregation and hadn’t given much thought to barriers in his own way. He knew he was destined to play baseball somewhere.

A slugging star in high school, Frank signed with the Cincinnati Reds in 1953 for a $3,500 bonus and a minor-league contract that paid $400 a month. He endured the first racial taunts of his life in bandbox ballparks from Ogden, Utah, to Columbia, South Carolina. By the time he jackhammered his way to the majors in 1956, he was a hardened young man of 20 who would soon earn a reputation as being quick with his bat—and his fists—and a menace on the base paths to infielders.

He stood right up on the plate in the batter’s box in a zone he called “concussion alley,” daring pitchers to bust him inside. They did. In 1956, while being named National League rookie of the year, Robinson was hit by a pitch 20 times—the most in the league. In fact, he finished his career with 198 “HBPs,” seventh in all time. In a 1958 exhibition game, Washington Senators pitcher Camilo Pascual beaned him so hard, the ball catching his head just under the helmet, that Robinson woke up in the hospital.

The pantheon of National Leaguers who graced the diamonds of the 1950s and 1960s included pitchers Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Warren Spahn, and Juan Marichal, infielders Eddie Mathews and Ernie Banks, and a cadre of future Hall of Fame outfielders as good as any who ever played the game: Aaron, Clemente, Mays—and Frank Robinson.

“People ask me, ‘Would you like to be playing today?’ ” Robinson said this summer. “And I say, ‘Yeah, for the money.’ But I wouldn’t really trade my era for this one. We played hard, we had fun, we respected the game. The competition was great.”

These players didn’t go into the stands and brawl with fans or challenge umpires to fisticuffs the way Ty Cobb did. But they played baseball just as hard. In his memoir, Extra Innings, Robinson quotes, approvingly, the words of Sam Crawford, a teammate of Cobb’s: “They always talk about Cobb playing dirty, trying to spike guys, [but] the base line belongs to the runner. If the infielders get in the way, that’s their lookout.”

That was Robinson’s operating theory on August 15, 1960, when he went into third base hard, too hard in the opinion of Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews, who was a star and a stud—and just as tough as Robinson. A quick but vicious fight ensued. In the second game of the double-header, Robinson answered with his bat. He hit a two-run homer and knocked in two more runs with a double—with a jammed thumb, a still-bloodied nose, and one eye swollen shut. The Reds beat the Braves 4–0 in that game, prompting Orioles general manager Roland Hemond to say many years later: “He beat the Braves with one eye!”

Most Valuable Player awards were hard to come by with so much talent around, but Robinson won one in 1961 when he hit 37 home runs while batting .323 and leading the Cincinnati Reds to the World Series. Robinson had an even better year in 1962, but Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills, with his 104 stolen bases, was named league MVP.

Robinson was the Reds’ star, but it wasn’t enough. In December 1965, he was abruptly traded to the Baltimore Orioles for a good, but not great, pitcher named Milt Pappas and an outfield prospect who didn’t even stick in the big leagues.

If the trade shocked Robinson, the team’s explanation for it stung more. Reds general manager Bill DeWitt said that although Robinson was only 30, he was “an old 30.” This comment was not only wrong, it was so vague that it still gnaws at Robinson.

“I was hurt by it,” Robinson tells me. “I’ve always wondered what he meant.”

He has his suspicions. The altercation with Eddie Mathews, little remembered today, was one of the first between a black and a white player. Mathews certainly gave as good as he got in the fight—better, really—but that didn’t stop some of the haters from dialing in death threats. Earlier that year, Robinson had bought a pistol, primarily because he liked to carry cash, and now he took to carrying it as well.

After a beef with racial overtones at an all-night diner, a short-order cook drew a knife on him. Robinson pulled out his gun. The cops were called, and Robinson was booked on a misdemeanor charge of possessing a concealed weapon. DeWitt may have thought that Frank wasn’t a great influence on the young black players coming up through the Reds organization, especially center fielder Vada Pinson, who’d idolized Frank since his own days at McClymonds.

For his part, Frank never forgot that DeWitt wouldn’t bail him out until morning.

And so the trade came.

The story goes that when Robinson first took the field for the Orioles in spring training 1966, the other players were already suited up, and Frank was talking with manager Hank Bauer. A live-armed young pitcher was wowing veterans with his nasty breaking balls. Bauer asked Frank if he wanted to take a couple of swings, so he grabbed a bat, stepped into the box, and crushed the first pitch he saw, a wicked off-speed pitch, down the left-field line. Watching the scene, Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer turned to fellow pitcher Dick Hall and said, “I think we just won the pennant.”

They won a lot more than that.

In 1966, Frank Robinson won the Triple Crown (most homers, most runs batted in, highest average) while leading the Orioles to the pennant and a four-game sweep of the Dodgers in the World Series. Frank was American League MVP that season (the only player to do it in both leagues) and the series MVP as well.

My family moved from California to Washington in 1969. I didn’t want to come east any more than Frank did, but one day, a kid in chemistry class softened the blow by inviting me to a Senators-Orioles game at RFK. The date was June 26, 1970, when Robinson’s Orioles came to play the Senators. Frank hit two grand slams that day. He remembers the game and, when I bring it up, corrects me on one aspect of it. I recalled the grand slams were hit to left field. He reminds me that the first was to right center.

Frank Robinson retired as a player in 1976 with 72 triples, 528 doubles, 204 stolen bases, a tad over 1,800 runs scored—and runs batted in—a Gold Glove award, nine seasons in which he hit .300 or higher, two MVP trophies, two World Series rings, and 586 home runs, none of them on steroids.

“The trade to the Orioles worked out very well for me,” he says. “I played hard, but sometimes you need a jolt in life—and that gave me one. Sometimes a bump in the road is painful, but this turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”

His managing career has not been as successful. He’s had lengthy stints in Cleveland, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Montreal, with losing records at each stop, and is candid that conventional wisdom holds that he’s not a top manager. The original rap against him was that he was too hard on players, but as Frank has evolved, so has the criticism. Now, his sin is that he’s too old-fashioned in another way: He eschews the computers and arcane stats championed by a new generation of “sabermetric” baseball fans and executives.

Make no mistake: Frank’s problems, such as they are, do not stem from any lack of brainpower. “He’s extremely smart,” says Nats first baseman Nick Johnson. “That’s what sets him apart. He notices something that you’ve started doing wrong with your swing, but he won’t give you all this technical advice. He’ll tell you to do something that makes you subtly correct it. Once I was in a slump, and he said, ‘Try to hit the bottom of the ball.’ I did it and went on a tear.”

Catcher Brian Schneider says Robinson has a knack for saying little things like that to help players and keeps his ego out of it. “He’ll tell you to try something, and if it doesn’t work, he’ll say, ‘Forget about it, we’ll try something else.’ And you listen, because he obviously knows this game.”

As for his obsession with winning, players smile whenever they hear someone say that Frank has mellowed. Even Barbara Robinson has come to accept that her husband’s intensity is unlikely to wane. “When we were first married, and I’d go off on the field, she’d say, ‘I can’t believe that crazy person out there is you!’ ” Robinson says. “She’s used to it now.”

In this era of economic restructuring, when it seems all the big US companies are offering buyouts to workers and executives 20 years younger than Frank Robinson, there’s a cautionary tale in a guy who won’t change with the times. But it’s a caution that goes both ways.

Youth movements overlook the value of institutional memory, deep knowledge of the product, and a lifelong passion for the endeavor at hand. This describes Frank Robinson’s relationship with baseball.

“This game gets in your blood,” he says, talking about his future. “I know it’s not going to be much longer, but right now I enjoy what I’m doing, and I feel I bring something to the table in baseball.”

Last year, Robinson had the hallmark Washington experience of testifying on Capitol Hill before a committee that was looking at Americans working later in life.

“I don’t think retirement is good for individuals. It’s not for me. I’m a doer,” Robinson told the US Senate Select Committee on Aging. “I think baseball fell into that rut of youth, computer age, ‘See you later, you old senior citizens. You can’t work a computer, so you can’t keep up with these young people.’”

He related the story of his lifelong friend Vada Pinson, the other outfielder from McClymonds High, who joined him on the Reds and taught him to dress spiffily. Pinson wanted more out of baseball than baseball wanted out of him. He lost his last coaching job in his late fifties.

“He went home and got in his La-Z-Boy chair,” Robinson said. “And that’s where they found him, three days later.” Pinson died of a stroke. Robinson vowed to continue working in baseball as if his life depended on it.

Despite his testimony, Washington may be Robinson’s last stop in baseball even if he is no more ready for retirement at 70 than his boyhood friend was at 57. Another paradox is that Robinson is probably doing his best managing now, with this franchise, in a trend that began five years ago when the team was in Montreal.

This is not likely to be enough. The hiring and firing of managers is a bloodless business, and for all the excitement of the 2005 season in Washington, the team was 81–81 at the end of the year, an uninspiring record that the 2006 team seems unlikely even to match. The hiring of Davey Johnson—without Robinson’s knowledge—was seen by many as a sign that Robinson may soon be replaced. General manager Jim Bowden is believed to covet the services of another former manager, Lou Piniella.

This happens in baseball. It’s happened to both Johnson and Robinson before. A week after the 9–8 win against the Phillies in June, it happened to John Wetteland. With the winning streak over and relief pitchers floundering, Frank fired his motorcycle-riding bullpen coach.

That’s the way baseball works, but allow me a personal observation and a plea: Nats fans, take a good look at Frank Robinson the next time you go to RFK, for when Robby finally leaves the playing fields for good, we won’t see another like him. He’s one of the last of the bison. And on August 31, in another home game against the Phillies, I plan on going to the ballpark, maybe even with a birthday cake, to pay homage to a man from America’s great past, a man who on that day will turn 71.

“That’s just a number,” Robinson told me.

“A number,” he noted in his appearance before Congress, “does not mean someone can’t be productive.”