With Robinson, Nats Manage as Best They Can

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The chucklehead who made Frank Robinson laugh yesterday resembled Horatio Sanz, the slovenly "Saturday Night Live" cast member. He stood a few feet away from the right ear of the Washington Nationals' manager before Opening Day at RFK Stadium.

"Frank! Frank!" he kept yelling, "you got to hit their first batter, Frank. You know it. After what they did to you in New York, it's payback time, Frank."

Robinson never left his perch atop the dugout, but he acknowledged the man -- nodding, laughing, raising a fist in jest. He drew a one-game suspension for his role in a bench-clearing tiff with the Mets last week. It was one of those feisty, juvenile baseball moments involving Pedro Martinez, one of those feisty, juvenile moments that made you forget Robinson turns 71 in August.

A week after he got hot and wanted to scrap, the gray-haired Hall of Famer trotted out to the largest ovation of the afternoon, an ovation that had to make Dick Cheney envious.

"Our manager," the public address announcer called him, and the noise continued to grow.

Fifty-one years in baseball and this is the hand dealt one of the game's icons: The Nationals have just two bona fide starters, a bunch of bighearted pitchers who can't go five innings and, soon, a litany of overworked mop-up men. Dating from Montreal, negligent ownership has given the club no farm system to speak of other than third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who struck out to end a game in which Robinson's club managed three hits.

This is Frank Robinson's payoff for playing foster father to this vagabond franchise for four-plus years.

Nice work, Bud Selig. Beautiful job, Jim Bowden. Three cheers for Linda Cropp and that expedient D.C. Council. They truly know how to send a legend off in style.

To acquire a big bat in Alfonso Soriano, Bowden, the hyperactive general manager, gave up Brad Wilkerson, a serviceable Terrmel Sledge and a right-handed prospect. Wilkerson is doing next to nothing with the Rangers, but at least he was a clubhouse guy, a non-distraction.

Soriano is a malcontent. Forget the outfield saga. That's old news. When Robinson benched him for not running out a popup last week, Jose Guillen said: "Everyone knows how Frank is. He doesn't ask for much." That said something. It said Guillen and the players have Robinson's back, not Soriano's. He's gone by July, if not sooner.

The larger question: How long does Frank Robinson stick around? And why would he want to with a lineup that cannot produce?

"Who you gonna replace him with?" asked Joey Eischen, the Nationals' 35-year-old reliever. "You've got the same managers recycled all the time. You're going to bring one of them in and have them say they got their love for the game back? I don't see that happening. I think Frank is going to be fine. With new ownership coming in, I think the front office people would be a lot more worried about their jobs than Frank.

"Personally, one of the only reasons I'm still here is I love playing for the man."

Robinson's first signing bonus was a measly $3,000. He almost threw a fit when he heard Texas gave Alex Rodriguez a quarter of a billion. The old baseball man in Robinson wants to believe there is some multimillion-dollar reward for all his work and stewardship of the club, a payoff for shepherding the game's orphans from the abyss in Montreal to something respectable in Washington. But it is not coming with this club, not the way the Nationals are put together.

They say spring training scores mean little. Still, of the Nationals' 23 losses in the Grapefruit League, 14 were by three or more runs and some were just embarrassing. On back-to-back nights, they were outscored 33-13 -- one an 11-1 loss to the Houston Astros in a split-squad game and 22-12 the next evening to the Florida Marlins. The Marlins, essentially a Class AAA team because of their finances, led the Nationals, 21-1, going into the sixth inning.

The gut here says Selig will make his decision about who should own the Nationals next Wednesday in Milwaukee, where he has a meeting scheduled to take care of other league business. Major League Baseball President Robert A. DuPuy and Jerry Reinsdorf, the chairman of the ownership committee, will be on hand, and this saga has gone on way too long for baseball to further weasel out of making a call.

Whoever gets the team should carefully consider Robinson's legacy before making a knee-jerk call on his future, what the first black manager in the game's history still means to Washington.

"We definitely want to sustain his legacy in the game," said Royce Clayton, the veteran shortstop. "Unfortunately, the manager can only manage the ballplayers he's given. But we're trying our best."

After the Nationals' sixth loss in eight games, Robinson was asked about the crowd's lack of oomph a year after baseball's romantic return to Washington:

"They didn't have anything to be rowdy about," he said. He said if he had his "druthers, I'd be 6-2 rather than 2-6." The mission, he said, was to get back to .500, so the Nationals could start playing baseball for something again.

You didn't have the heart to tell Frank Robinson that's not going to happen. Not with this club. Not with what baseball, the front office and the maddening city government have done to it.

Fifty-one opening days. Fifty-one years in baseball. For this.

With a legitimate owner and team behind him in Washington, the man deserves 52.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company