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Robinson Speaks His Mind On Aging

Nationals Manager Testifies on Hill

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005; Page D05

Sixty-nine-year-old Frank Robinson sat yesterday morning with no cap covering his speckled gray hair, a dark, pin-striped suit replacing his baseball uniform, and spoke for more than 20 straight minutes -- without notes -- to a Senate committee about working past traditional retirement age.

"I think our country has a mentality," Robinson said. "We've been taught to work toward retirement. Well, times have changed. I don't think you can throw a blanket over everybody and say, 'You should retire at 50 or retire at 60.' "

Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, who will turn 70 in August: "I don't know if I will retire at any time." (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

Robinson's spirited testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Aging -- which consisted of two members, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) -- was designed to address the changing demographics of the American workforce. Smith cited statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau that said the percentage of the workforce age 65 or over will increase to more than 18 percent in 2025.

Though admittedly nervous -- "I was out of my element," Robinson said -- the Hall of Fame player told stories about how he grew up in Oakland, Calif., in a single-parent home, how he worked to become a professional ballplayer because he didn't want to let his mother down, and how he continued to work even after his playing days. Robinson, who will turn 70 in August, is in his fourth year managing the Nationals' franchise, which played as the Montreal Expos before this season.

"I would like to convey, and get across to workers out there, to the people that hire and fire," Robinson said, "a number does not mean someone can't be productive. We need to build our workforce and get people that are beginning to understand that senior citizens can be valuable."

Both Smith and Kohl -- the only Senators of the 20 members on the committee to attend -- spoke almost reverentially to Robinson, who hit 586 home runs during a 21-year major league career, a total that still puts him fifth on the all-time list. Kohl called Robinson "one of our most beloved and renowned baseball players."

During the brief question-and-answer session following Robinson's remarks, Smith asked Robinson whether he had seen friends or contemporaries retire and then, essentially, fade away quickly. Robinson told a story of Vada Pinson, a teammate with the Cincinnati Reds who played in the big leagues for 18 seasons. Pinson coached a bit after his playing career, but retired at age 57.

"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 in an Oakland hospital in October 1995 after suffering a stroke several weeks earlier.

Barbara Bovbjerg, the director of education, workforce and income security for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, testified after Robinson, as did several senior citizens who are still working.

Robinson, whose future with the Nationals isn't assured beyond this season, sounded very much like a man ready to work three or four more years.

"I don't know if I will retire at any time," Robinson said. "They're probably going to have to come get me and put me in that pine box and say, 'Goodbye, Frank. It's time to go.' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company