A Legend's Uncertain Future
Friday, June 23, 2006
The past is the past, and no one's taking it away from Frank Robinson, least of all those in Baltimore, where he will arrive today to manage the 2,155th game of his major league career. "I am attached to Baltimore," he said this week, "and I always will be."
Baltimore, after all, is where he hit 179 of his 586 homers, where he was an all-star five times in six seasons, where he won a most valuable player award, a home run title, a batting championship, two World Series and the admiration of a generation who grew up watching him flick his heavy bat with those thick, powerful wrists, sending baseballs to every corner of old Memorial Stadium.
All that is part of Robinson's legacy, a chapter that opened four decades ago. It is secure, imprinted on his Hall of Fame plaque. But when Robinson manages the Washington Nationals at Oriole Park at Camden Yards tonight, he understands his future is far shakier and, indeed, entirely unpredictable. A legend, it seems, can still be forging his legacy at age 70. Robinson knows it is highly unlikely he'll ever wear another uniform, that each game he manages brings him one step closer to an uncertain end, be it this year or next year or -- what he hopes against hope -- three or four years in the future.
"I don't think I'd ever sit here and tell you it doesn't enter my mind," Robinson said, "Of course it does."
Last month, Major League Baseball, which hired Robinson in 2002, sold the Nationals to a group led by Bethesda real estate magnate Theodore N. Lerner. Though the sale hasn't yet closed, incoming team president Stan Kasten met with Robinson once. Kasten calls the selection of the manager "a better question for the general manager," but Kasten hasn't said whether he will retain General Manager Jim Bowden. In turn, Bowden called it "a privilege and an honor to work with Frank," but he has not said what he would do with Robinson should he, himself, keep his job.
So there is little more than limbo. There are moments when Robinson questions when and how it will all be resolved. Yet he rarely speaks about it. His players and coaches have tried to ask him what he thinks about the future.
"You can try all you want to get it out of him," catcher Brian Schneider said. "He ain't budging."
Address the subject with Robinson, and he is as nonchalant as possible. "It doesn't consume me," he will say. But behind such a what-happens-happens attitude, he is an extremely proud man. "That's very accurate," he said. As such, he is hyper-aware of internal and external criticism of his communication skills, his work ethic, his in-game strategy. During the course of an hour-long conversation, he brings up that assessment unprompted.
"You read things," Robinson said. "You hear things. You see things. You don't hear things. I don't think people think I'm a very good manager, for whatever reason."
In 16 years managing four franchises -- Cleveland, San Francisco, Baltimore and Montreal/Washington -- he has posted six winning seasons. His teams have never won a division title, and he can recall the details of the two squandered opportunities to this day, 1982 with the Giants and 1989 with the Orioles, both times down to the season's final weekend, both times with losses in two of the last three games.
He claims, though, that those near-misses don't eat at him. He has a single guiding philosophy about managing: Make the decision he thinks is best at any specific time, and live with it. He does not, for the most part, carry losses home like he did when he first took over the Indians in 1975, when he became the first African American manager in the history of the game. Rather, as he has grown older, he flips off the TV by 11:30 or midnight instead of staying up and dozing off in his chair at 3 or 4 a.m., then dragging himself to bed, the game following him there, like the old days.
Still, in all of this, he wrestles with his reputation.