By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 18 -- Frank Robinson looked every bit of his 70 years Saturday morning, and far more weary than someone ought to on the first day of spring training -- to the point where, in the quiet of his office, someone felt compelled to ask the Washington Nationals' manager, "Frank, you doing okay, health-wise?"
"Yeah," Robinson answered back, with the quickness of a slugger turning on a fat fastball, "why do you ask?"
This wasn't the best of winters, professionally speaking, for the Hall of Fame outfielder and fifth-year manager of the Montreal/Washington franchise. The organization strung him along until mid-December before re-signing him to a one-year contract, then fired a couple of his closest friends on the Nationals' coaching staff. He might have said goodbye to it all and gone off to work on his golf game, if he didn't love it so much.
"The first half we put together last year was just magical," Robinson said. "To put that together for a full year, just to see how enjoyable it would be for the players -- that's the main reason [for coming back]. I still have a love for the game, and I still feel that I have something to give to the game."
On the day Nationals pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, Robinson addressed the media for the first time in months, and it was as if he knew what was coming and had decided how to confront it. When the first inevitable question came about the Alfonso Soriano issue -- what to do about a talented, newly acquired second baseman who has no interest in accommodating the Nationals' wishes to move him to the outfield -- Robinson quickly cut it off.
"It's only an issue," he said, "because you all make it an issue. I don't know if it's an issue or not. I'll let you all know after I talk to him when he gets here."
Nationals position players don't report until Thursday, and Robinson was resolute that he would not discuss Soriano -- a four-time all-star whom the Nationals acquired in a December trade with the Texas Rangers for Brad Wilkerson and two other players -- until he had a chance to sit him down in his office, alone, for a man-to-man talk.
"I want to listen to him," Robinson said, "hear what he has to say."
Robinson comes from an era when no man-to-man talk was required. The manager told you where to play, and that's where you played.
"We're beyond that [approach]. I understand that," Robinson said. "This is why you do it now: Because you're sympathetic with the player."
There was sympathy for Soriano's plight from all sides on Saturday. General Manager Jim Bowden, the person who foisted this problem upon Robinson, implored the media and fans several times to show "compassion" for the 30-year-old Soriano.
"I don't think enough people are understanding what he has gone through," Bowden said. "This is a player who was happy in Texas, and who was traded. And as soon as he's traded, he learns that the team that gets him wants him to play a different position. And then the player ends up going to [salary] arbitration and losing in arbitration. . . .
"This is a special player, and he has a lot of pride, and he's a sensitive guy. He's been through an awful lot this offseason."
To this point, the Nationals' dealings with Soriano -- aside from the arbitration hearing, where a three-person panel agreed with the Nationals' position that Soriano was worth $10 million in 2006, but not the $12 million he was seeking -- have been over the phone and through his agent. And just as in an arbitration hearing, there appears to be no middle ground here: The Nationals are adamant that Jose Vidro, a three-time all-star himself, is their second baseman. And Soriano, in his final season before reaching free agency, is adamant that he is not an outfielder.
"What we've told him very clearly is that we have Jose Vidro at second base, and Jose Vidro can't play another position," Bowden said. "We've explained to him, 'Our team is better if you play in the outfield.' That's what we've explained to him. We have to do what's best for the team. . . . Until he can get here and we can start to build a relationship, it's hard for anyone to analyze where he's coming from in this situation."
The best hope the Nationals have to sway Soriano most likely resides in the manager's office. Robinson still holds immense stature in the game, and he knows what it is like to be moved around. In 1959, his fourth year in the majors, the Cincinnati Reds moved him from the outfield to first base, where he spent the better part of two seasons before moving back to the outfield. It is safe to say his career did not suffer from it.
And if nothing else, Robinson might try a personal plea: Show some compassion, some sympathy, for a 70-year-old man who just wants to make it to the playoffs.
"I feel this organization is not that far away from being a real good ballclub and on a consistent basis challenging for the playoffs," Robinson said. "I'd like to be a part of it if I can. I know time is running out, as far as I'm concerned."