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Frank Talk

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, June 16, 2005

Nobody knows who will own the Nationals next year. But if Frank Robinson isn't the manager, regardless of who signs the checks, then there is no justice. Anybody can buy a team. But Robinson has truly built one.

Tuesday's near brawl between Robinson, almost 70, and Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, 46 -- an altercation that cleared both benches and spurred the Nats to their 27th come-from-behind victory of the season -- was the latest illustration that the fight and passion in a remarkable Nationals team are a clear reflection of the personality and leadership of its manager.

Robinson is a hard man. And he is the reason the Nationals are a hard team -- and a first-place team. All season, Robinson has repeated, quietly, but firmly, that he would like to be allowed by future ownership to manage the team he has molded. For how long? Perhaps two or three years. But, in any case, as long as his health, the team's results and common sense allow it.

Yet all season he's doubted that this will happen. Last month, he talked about the fine future of the Nats "in the new park."

"Of course," he said to me, "I'll probably have to buy a ticket to see it."

These Nationals are Robinson's team. He's molded them for four seasons, dragging himself from Canada to Puerto Rico to defend the professional pride of players he's grown to respect, at an age when he could have played golf every day with any celebrity in Los Angeles. He picked the hardest available long-hours life on the endless road when the plushest retirement anybody could imagine was his for the asking.

No wonder the Nationals play with his heart and fire. The day they don't, they know he's out the door. He stays because he loves the way they play. And they play the way they do to see that pride in his eyes. Without him, the notion of nine straight come-from-behind wins in one homestand would be utter nonsense. Without him, the idea of being in first place with a team that has been outscored by the league would be ludicrous.

To separate this man from his chosen men would undo years of work. A fine franchise starts with a fine competitive personality. Then you add talent that is compatible with the makeup of the team. Not the other way around, constantly buying talent to compensate for lack of character. For the Nationals, thanks to Robinson, that personality is already in place.

As a blood-stirring 6-3 victory on Tuesday over the first-place Angels showed once again, the Nationals may lack many things, including even one mega-star. But they have almost every intangible quality you would seek as this embattled franchise -- ownerless, thwarted by powerful adversaries from Peter Angelos to Comcast to elements of the D.C. Council -- tries to take root in an old baseball town. Few ballclubs have ever needed to be fighters more than these Nationals. Half their fans can't even watch half their games. If the man who inspires that grit happens to turn 70 in two months, then that's even more inspiring.

What transpired late Tuesday night will simply add to Robinson's long legend, although Frank's magic trick last month, when he got umpires to turn a bona fide Atlanta home run into a foul ball in a one-run Washington win, didn't exactly hurt his image.

Back in the day, nobody in baseball was crazy enough to get six inches from Robinson's face and scream insults at him. Not unless you wanted to eat through a straw for six weeks. Most ballplayers can't fight. Robinson could. He didn't start brawls, but he finished some. Nobody flipped more infielders, ignored being hit by more fastballs, crowded home plate closer or was more feared when the benches cleared. The first rule in a brawl was "Find Frank." He wasn't coming to shake your hand.

However, Robinson, who overcame prostate cancer several years ago, now walks with a slow shuffle that bespeaks 21 seasons of busting up double plays and catchers. On Monday, he had laser eye surgery and wore dark wraparound sunglasses on Tuesday night at the Big A.

Apparently, Scioscia thought it was safe to get in this senior citizen's grill and try to show up one of the game's fiercest players. Luckily for Scioscia, four umps were just barely enough to keep Robinson out of roundhouse range.

Scioscia was mad because Robinson caught one of his pitchers cheating and got the umps to throw Brendan Donnelly out of the game. Having been outwitted, Scioscia, who likes to play the hard guy, thought he could at least intimidate an old man.

From the '50s into the '90s, Scioscia would never have gotten so close to Robinson's face, yelling what -- on replays -- looked like curses; back then, anybody who bellied up to Frank with his yap flapping would soon have been on his back, flopping like a salmon. But Robinson never expected anyone in baseball would treat him with such disrespect, just because he'd been outsmarted in the late innings of a close ballgame.

And near Los Angeles no less, a place where Robinson played for the Angels and one he has called home for much of his adult life.

So, caught off guard, it took Robinson a fraction of a second to decide to go after Scioscia. "He took me by surprise," said Robinson, almost apologetic that he hadn't quite gotten close enough to land a Darth Robby wallop.

What happened next was beautiful, except perhaps to baseball pastoralists. The benches cleared. Jose Guillen, who was expelled from the Angels last season after a screaming match with Scioscia, came to the defense of the manager that he has quickly adopted as a grandfather figure and role model. Three Nationals coaches managed to drag Guillen back into the dugout before he could fulfill his heart's desires and get suspended for weeks.

In the next inning, Scioscia demanded the umps inspect Gary Majewski's glove, just as Robinson had asked that Donnelly's glove (lathered with illegal pine tar) be examined. All the umps could pin on Majewski was that one string hung down too far. So, snip, the problem was solved. No ejection. Just a Scioscia sulk.

The best drama was yet to come. (If you have satellite TV, you might even have seen it. Otherwise, too bad.) The Nats trailed 3-1 in the eighth when Guillen, batting with a man on, got the chance he deeply wanted. Scot Shields, who's held hitters to an average under .170, threw a sidearm slider on the low inside corner. Such a pitch shouldn't be hit. Guillen's laser beam home run ricocheted off the back wall of the Angels' bullpen so hard that it flew back over the fence and landed in the outfield.

Guillen did a disdainful bat flip, yelled into the dugout toward Robinson, who gestured back, then, as he crossed home plate, pounded the hands of the waiting Nationals hitters. The score was tied, 3-3, but the game was over.

Scioscia is a superior manager. But it's going to take a long time for the image to fade of a burly prime-of-life ex-catcher trying to bully a man who was winning fair fights in the big leagues before Scioscia was born.

When Robinson was 46, he managed the Giants. Can anybody imagine him doing to a distinguished soon-to-be-70 Hall of Famer what Scioscia tried to pull on Robinson?

It is inconceivable.

"There's nothing [Scioscia] can say to me now. Nothing," said Robinson. "I don't even want him to approach me. I don't want him to try to apologize to me. If he even thought about it, I will not accept it."

A hard man. A hard team. It's no coincidence. Anyone who separates them now is a fool.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company