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Mike Wise

An Autograph As a Good Sign

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page D01

Jose Guillen walked into the manager's office before a recent day game and placed a baseball in Frank Robinson's hand. "This is for Gia, Frank," the squat slugger said.

Guillen explained that Gia, a Louis Vuitton representative who sells apparel to the players, wanted a signature.


"She asked for my autograph, right?" Robinson said.

Guillen rolled his eyes, as if he had been through this routine at least once.

Yes, the outfielder nodded.

"She don't even know me." Robinson said.

"Frank," Guillen said.

"What?"

"Anyone who's in baseball, Frank, knows Frank Robinson."

More than almost every Hall of Famer, the Nationals' manager is keenly aware of his place in the game -- the balls crushed, the walls cleared. The only player to ever be named MVP in both the American and National leagues, Robinson became the first black manager in baseball when he took over the Cleveland Indians in 1975. He spoke out about injustice when it was unpopular for black players to do so. "Branded a troublemaker," as Robinson likes to say.

He will turn 70 in August. On many afternoons and early evenings, he reclines in his office chair. His palms are often clasped in back of his neck and his elbows are out. He dispenses lineup cards as much as living history. Frank Robinson, in the twilight of a legendary career, often sounds like he could take this job or leave it.

"I don't know if I'll be here or not, but I'm going to get them to play as long as I'm here," he said. Like every team employee, he is waiting for an ownership group to purchase the Nationals from Major League Baseball.

Yet there is another piece of Frank Robinson, too, the aging Hall of Famer who wonders if a young woman asked for his autograph. He almost seems wary of losing his place in the game, that the minions will forget who he was and what he meant, or that his significance will be diminished by the years.

During spring training, one of baseball's greatest players bemoaned, half-jokingly, that Barry Bonds had passed him on the all-time home run list. Robinson liked being No. 4 with his 586 career home runs, behind the Holy Trinity of sluggers -- Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Sammy Sosa (576) is now closing fast. Robinson's place in the record book, which had remain unchanged for more than 25 years, will soon be eclipsed twice within three seasons.

"Probably, before I take my last breath, I'm going to probably be about 99th on the list," Robinson said the day baseball announced its lax steroid testing program. "I'm afraid people are going to say, 'Frank who?' It's going to be such huge numbers up there at the top."

Sometimes, on the cusp of another entertaining "in-my-day" riff, Robinson needs the Nationals almost as much as they need him.

Which does not make much sense. At worst, they lose 100 games and he returns to the grand life of a baseball legend. At best, the Nationals win 85 or more and Robinson becomes the old coot who got the young bucks to win, a hero of a manager in Washington's maiden season.

Either way, he's not leaving jaded or angry.

Many of the game's longtime observers remember Robinson as a surly, intimidating presence. His words were curt and often cutting. Occasionally that side still emerges. But more often from Robinson there is the mellowed grandfather, tired of working himself into a lather.

"I'm a much better listener now than I was," he said. "Little things don't bother me as much as they used to. I'm able to now rationalize and reason with some things I see that I don't like, some things I hear that I don't like. I now ignore them. I involve players a lot more on decision-making things."

Before Commissioner Bud Selig asked him to give up his job as baseball's dean of discipline in 2002 to bail out the Expos, "I felt like my managing days were over," he said. "I'd figured I had my shot -- three shots -- and it was time for other people to get their chances.

After talk of contraction, he was almost certain the Expos had one year left. "When they asked me to do it, I felt comfortable saying yes because I figured it was for one year," Robinson said. "I would help that club be as good as it could possibly be in that one year. One year, I would not let them feel disrespected or not wanted. I felt like I could get this team to play up to their standards, that's why I took the job."

One year turned into two, two into three, and soon Frank Robinson, foster father of unwanted players, put in for adoption papers.

"I can't believe it's been that long," he said. "But I'm still here for almost those same reasons."

His team has broken from the gate 8-6, in contrast to the 5-9 Yankees, whose payroll is, oh, $150 million more than Washington's.

Some of the team's younger players treat him with outright reverence, tiptoeing into his office as if they were 9-year-olds waiting for him to sign his rookie card.

The cholesterol count is a healthy 160. His weight is 210 pounds, up from his playing weight of 185. "Blood pressure is fine, but I could lose about 10 pounds," he said. He walks briskly up to two hours, three times a week, on the treadmill. "My family worries about me in this job," he said. "My wife is a health buff. Her and my daughter want me to be around a while, so I understand."

Wild, no? Fifty years ago, Robinson went to his first spring training. Stan Musial was seven years from retirement when he came into the league. "A lot of players I've played with have been long gone," he said.

He was asked if he has attended many funerals for ex-teammates.

"No, I don't go to those things," Robinson said. "I don't handle them very well. I've been to my mother's funeral and one other funeral. They bother me. They disturb me. They stay with me for a long time."

The good thing is, baseball snickers at mortality. Like no other American sport, it pays intense homage to its past. For example, Yankee Stadium has Monument Park. Fenway has the Green Monster. And at rickety RFK Stadium, there is a striking pose of the player who, in 1970, hit grand slams in successive plate appearances.

He's the one filling out the lineup card tonight.


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