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Frank Robinson soaks up adulation at Nationals Park

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Ovations rained down from the stands Wednesday before Washington’s first playoff game in 79 years. A roar for Stephen Strasburg, who won’t pitch in the postseason. A thunderous clap for Davey Johnson, who managed the Nationals to this point. And more cheers for the F-16s that flew overhead, a grand entrance into the postseason for the nation’s capital.

But when a 77-year-old man wearing a Nationals jersey over a pink shirt-and-tie combination strode toward the center of the diamond, Nationals Park let him have it. Frank Robinson hadn’t been here to be recognized in any official capacity since he soaked up adulation on the final day of the 2006 season at old RFK Stadium, his last day in a major league uniform.

“It was very nice,” Robinson said afterward. And to put on that No. 20?

“Not as good as it was before,” Robinson said.

But in his day at Nationals Park, Robinson made clear how much the city and its fans meant to him. He spent just two of his more than 60 years in baseball in the District, the 2005 and ’06 seasons, when he managed the Nationals in baseball’s first years back after a 33-year absence. Robinson was an MVP in the National League for the Cincinnati Reds, an MVP in the American League for the Baltimore Orioles. He won the World Series and the Triple Crown and is in the Hall of Fame. But Washington still matters to him.

“People were saying that baseball wouldn’t go here with the Orioles just down the way and I told them they were wrong,” Robinson said. “. . . I said these are great baseball fans here. You put a good product out there, they’ll come out and root for the team. It’s good to see this, and well-deserved.”

An hour before the game, Robinson — who now works as an executive vice president for Major League Baseball — took questions from fans in one of the club-level restaurants at the stadium. Most fans opened their remarks by thanking Robinson, and Robinson answered back in kind, saying he was happy for lots of parties involved, but “especially you, the fans.”

“Stay behind this team,” Robinson told the assembled group. “You’re going to see a lot of great things out of this team, not just this year, but for a lot of years to come.”

The franchise looks almost wholly different from the days Robinson managed it, first from 2002 to 2004 in Montreal and then in Washington. But Robinson still holds fond memories of the first half of the 2005 season, when the Nationals somehow went 50-31 in the first half and led the National League East at the all-star break.

“We thought we had a good chance to do it in ’05, the first year,” Robinson said. “We had a terrific first half, and someone turned the switch off at the break, and a different team came back after the break. But it was fun the first half of the season.”

Robinson still has ties to the team. Before this season, shortstop Ian Desmond changed his uniform number to 20 to honor Robinson, who was the manager when Desmond was first called up to major league camp as a teenager in 2005. Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, a teammate of Robinson’s in Baltimore, spoke Wednesday of Robinson’s first spring training appearance with the Orioles, in which he entered a game essentially off the street — with no batting practice or warmup — and immediately hit a home run.

“I respect him and I think a lot of him,” Johnson said. “I think he’s been just an outstanding example of a true professional.”

His first pitch delivered, Robinson waved to the crowd, then walked toward Desmond and playfully punched him in the chest. Thursday, former Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard is due to perform the same duty. But for Washington’s return to the playoffs, there was one clear choice, and Frank Robinson soaked it up.

“It’s good to see this,” Robinson said. “It’s well deserved.”

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