VIERA, Fla., Feb. 14 -- The most recognizable name on the Washington Nationals' roster hit his last home run, No. 586, some 29 years ago. In February 2002, he took a job that was supposed to last one season, after which he would have been more than happy to head back to his position in the offices of Major League Baseball.
Yet Monday morning, Frank Robinson emerged from the clubhouse door, walked through the dugout and onto the playing field at Space Coast Stadium. In August, he will turn 70. He could retire and concentrate on getting his golf handicap in single digits. But not now. Not with baseball returning to Washington for the first time since 1971, when Robinson visited RFK Stadium as a Baltimore Oriole. With pitchers and catchers set to report to spring training here Tuesday, with the first workout scheduled for Thursday, he intends to manage this team -- now and in the future.
Frank Robinson's name is the most famous on the Washington Nationals roster: He ranks fifth in baseball history in home runs.
(Gary Bogdon For The Washington Post)
"I'm ready for the long run, as long as I can go, as long as someone wants me to be here and feels like I can do the job," Robinson said. "I don't want to be hanging on here; don't get me wrong. But I feel good. My health is good. I'm excited about the game. I feel like I have something to give to the game. As long as I feel that way, and I'm wanted, I'll be here."
The situation is ripe for nostalgia, given Robinson's brilliant career, if Robinson were at all a nostalgic man. "I'm just not that way," he said. Yet he ranks fifth on the all-time home run list, behind only men named Ruth, Aaron, Bonds and Mays. He was the first player to win a most valuable player award in both the American and National leagues. His presence gives the Nationals a Hall of Famer, albeit sitting in the dugout, and though he doesn't talk about it much, he is a pioneer.
Thirty years ago, when he was still playing for the Cleveland Indians, Robinson was named the manager of the club. In some ways, he was the Jackie Robinson of that position, the first black man entrusted with running a club.
His presence in the District, which was 60 percent black according to the 2000 census, is seen by some as significant, because the game has dropped in popularity among young blacks.
"There were once kids who really came of age when you had all these incredible black stars," said Mark Anthony Neal, an associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University. "Willie Mays and Willie Stargell and Frank Robinson. There aren't as many of them any more. For these kids that grow up listening to hip-hop, very few relate to baseball. Robinson might be someone who could help bridge that in Washington."
Robinson, in an unromantic way, initially dismissed reflecting on his role as a racial icon in an interview during the offseason. But pressed, his chest puffed out a bit.
"I take pride in it, of course I do," Robinson said then. "Someone has to be the first. I'm proud to be the first minority manager, first Afro-American manager, in baseball. It knocked down a barrier, destroyed a barrier. . . .
"But I'll reflect on it after I'm sitting back and talking to my grandchildren. I'll say, 'I was the first Afro-American manager, and I won 150 games, and I lost the pennant by a half a game.' The stories will get bigger and bigger and bigger."
But as with anything with Washington's organization, there is uncertainty surrounding Robinson's situation, despite his name, despite his place in the game. The club likely will be sold this summer, and a new owner could decide to replace the entire organizational structure, from President Tony Tavares to General Manager Jim Bowden to Robinson.
Bowden, whose only previous stop as a GM was a 10 1/2-year stint in Cincinnati, said Monday that he could have chosen another manager when he was hired in November, but he decided to bring back Robinson, whose 233-253 record during the franchise's final three years in Montreal included winning seasons in 2002 and '03. Bowden had heard the criticism of Robinson from those days, that he wasn't always alert, that he was caught dozing off in the dugout by TV cameras. It didn't faze Bowden.
"When people may not respect his intelligence, the only reason you may not respect it is if you don't spend the time to talk to him," Bowden said. "He's not going to come out and say things. Sometimes, all that knowledge stays in his head until you go and get it."
Communicating differently, Robinson said, has been part of his adjustment during his time with this franchise. When he took the job in Montreal, the Expos franchise was supposed to be eliminated, and he was slated to return to his job as baseball's administrative disciplinarian, reviewing player infractions and meting out fines and suspensions. But after it became apparent that the franchise would be relocated, not contracted, he was somewhat surprised to find himself energized by the players.