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A Legend's Uncertain Future
Robinson Is Managing Fine, for Now

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Gut Reactions

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.

"It bugs me," he said. "I feel like, in my own heart, that I've done a good job . . . and gotten the most out of what I've had. Do they always agree with the moves I make, the things I do? No, because I don't always go by the book.

"I do some things off the wall. I do things by instinct, by gut feeling, about what I see out there. It's a little odd to some people, especially today, with such hands-on ownership groups and the advice they're getting from other people. You're rubbing people the wrong way."

Here, then, is where Robinson subjects himself to criticism. In an era in which clubs hire professional mathematicians to provide astute statistical analysis, Robinson almost rebelliously eschews numbers. The computers on his office desk in each ballpark he visits remain unused, and he dismisses them with a wave of his gigantic right hand. Though Eddie Rodriguez, his bench coach, keeps him abreast of statistics on matchups and the like -- "People say he doesn't know numbers, but he does," Rodriguez said -- he would never let statistical evidence overcome his gut, which he figures has had a half a century in the game to figure out how it should feel about any situation.

"I know that it could be used against me, and I know that some people have used that stuff today in selecting front office people and managers," he said. "They feel like today's management and people in baseball have to be computer-savvy and numbers-savvy. But I've always said -- and I'm not disrespecting numbers -- that I don't manage that way. I manage by instincts, what I see."

Strained Relationship

Robinson has been to Camden Yards a few times since he left the Orioles, both when he worked in the MLB offices as the league's vice president of on-field operations and in April, when the Nationals played in an exhibition there. But remember, he is a proud man, and as such, the day his relationship with the franchise ended forever -- Dec. 4, 1995 -- is seared in his memory.

The previous October, Roland Hemond resigned as Baltimore's general manager, but Robinson remained as his assistant. He thought he was in training to run a franchise himself, "either there or someplace else." But Peter Angelos, the team's owner, instead hired Pat Gillick, who had won two World Series with Toronto, and the team of Gillick and Manager Davey Johnson were to lead the Orioles for the foreseeable future.

To this day, Robinson can remember that uncertainty, perhaps the kind of feeling he has now. He said he had an assurance from Angelos: You have a job with this organization. He said Gillick told the entire front-office staff in a conference call that their jobs would be safe for a year. He said two days after the call he was summoned to Gillick's office and told his contract wasn't being renewed.

"I was all foggy," Robinson said.

So he did some digging. He remembered, the previous year, sitting in on an interview of managerial candidates, when Johnson was first up for the manager's job. Russell Smouse, Angelos's counsel, was leading the interview, but Robinson felt one question had to be asked of Johnson, his teammate and friend from his days as the second baseman on those Orioles championship teams in 1966 and '70.

"If the owner says to the GM," Robinson recalled asking Johnson, " 'Go down and tell Davey Johnson, the manager, that I want to take this player out of the lineup and insert that player,' what would you do?' "

Johnson, according to Robinson, said something to the effect of, "I'd tell him, 'Here's the lineup card. I'll go up and take your job. You go and manage the ballclub.' "

Robinson had one thought: Wrong answer. That time around, the Orioles hired Phil Regan. The next winter, when Johnson landed the job, Robinson said Johnson remained incensed that Robinson not only would ask such a question, but that he didn't call and help prepare him for the interview beforehand or break down how it went afterward. Johnson, Robinson recalled, told him as much.

"He said, 'I'll never forgive you for it,' " Robinson said.

Johnson said he doesn't remember the specifics, though he does allow that when he didn't get the job, he could have questioned why Robinson didn't help him more.

"In an interview process, I don't think there's any question you could ask me that would offend me," Johnson said. "If I said anything to Frank, it might have been something like, 'If you had any input in the decision, why did you not put in a better word for me?' "

Robinson, to this day, believes Johnson had something to do with his ultimate dismissal.

"I don't hold a grudge," Robinson said. "But it's with me. It's still with me."

In a phone interview, Johnson said he couldn't have played a role in Robinson's dismissal by the Orioles. "I didn't have that kind of authority," he said. "I asked questions about why he wasn't kept around."

The issue stirred again earlier this month. Robinson was in the visiting manager's office in Atlanta when the phone rang. A reporter was on the other end, wanting to know what Robinson thought of the Nationals' hiring of one Davey Johnson, still with a reputation as one of the best managers in the game, as a special consultant to Bowden.

What? This was the first Robinson had heard about it, though he said he had spoken to Bowden earlier in the afternoon.

"My first reaction?" Robinson said this week. "This is like having a fox in the henhouse."

Bowden, who was not in Atlanta, said another club official was supposed to provide Robinson with the information about Johnson's hiring.

"We all like to be communicated with," Bowden said. "Unfortunately, for whatever reason, there was a communication breakdown, and the news didn't get there. For that, the organization is sorry."

This is the second time Bowden has hired Johnson, who managed the Cincinnati Reds for Bowden from 1993 to '95. Told about Robinson's feelings this week, Bowden said: "The tough part about life is that a lot of times, people are hired by different people in an organization that they have history with. And that's part of life, and the reality is, the hiring of Davey does not affect him."

Johnson's contract runs only through July 31, and his responsibilities include evaluating players both inside and outside the organization as the franchise prepares for the trade deadline. Johnson reiterated yesterday that: "I think the world of Frank Robinson. He taught us all how to play. . . . I don't want his job, and I think he's doing a great job."

Bowden, who could ultimately decide Robinson's fate, acknowledged that "had there been a conflicting responsibility, had he been hired as a bench coach, then there's more to it." In this case, Bowden said, there is not.

The episode highlights the sometimes uneasy power structure within the Nationals. Robinson was originally hired by Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, who also hired team president Tony Tavares to run the club and, originally, Omar Minaya to be the general manager. The fact that Selig hired all three men created a system in which all felt they reported to Major League Baseball, and the chain of command was unclear.

Robinson describes his relationship with Bowden, who replaced Minaya in November 2004, as "a very good one." But he is, after all, a proud man, and any slight -- real or perceived -- stings.

"Communication doesn't flow one way," Robinson said. "It goes this way and that way, and that's what we have a little trouble with sometimes. I'm not saying I'm exactly perfect with it, and I kind of learn to live with it. But certain things, you kind of feel slighted or hurt that you don't get informed about it."

Deep Knowledge

Robinson has opinions on almost everything, from which pitch should be called in a certain spot to how the Dallas Mavericks should have defended Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade. "But you never hear him talk about 'The way I did it,' " Rodriguez said. He will not walk through his clubhouse and espouse his theories or accomplishments, unsolicited.

"He has a knowledge of the game, an ability to dissect the game to such detail that very few people ever will be able to in this game," Bowden said. "There's no doubt his knowledge is not something that he outwardly communicates. But if you sit and ask him questions, he will answer them. And if you go in-depth with him, he'll go as in-depth as you can mentally or physically go."

Yet there are times when he can't contain himself, such as that moment last month at RFK Stadium, perhaps 15 minutes after a victory over the Houston Astros. Earlier that afternoon, veteran Matthew LeCroy, a catcher-first baseman playing his first season for Robinson, committed two throwing errors, and the Astros stole seven bases without being caught. Robinson pulled him, in mid-inning.

When he arrived at his postgame news conference, Robinson was, naturally, asked about LeCroy. He thought back to the way LeCroy had come off the field.

"Most guys would've been upset, would've thought I'm showing them up," Robinson said this week. "They'd have tore the dugouts up, laced profanity all over the place, go up the runway and tore up the clubhouse and whatever else."

Though he insists he didn't cry -- "I wasn't blubbering," he said -- Robinson's eyes watered, and tears trickled down his face. "I should've waited five or 10 minutes to compose myself," Robinson said.

But here he was, Frank Robinson -- Hall of Famer, hard-ass, the kind of man who, Schneider said, "If you don't want the truth, don't ask that guy" -- tearing up, video that would be shown time and again on national television.

"I wasn't embarrassed by it," Robinson said. "What's wrong with having emotions? I think that's what's wrong with a lot of people -- they don't show their emotions."

Will this be the lasting memory of his managerial career, the signature moment from his final season? Frank Robinson doesn't know. He believes he should be "rewarded in some way extra or special" by MLB, because he served the sport in a position no one really wanted at the time. Selig, in a statement issued through a spokesman yesterday, called Robinson "a longtime personal friend," but gave no indication that there would be a place for him at MLB should his career with the Nationals end.

"I am grateful that he agreed to help in Montreal, which was a difficult situation at the time, and stayed with the club when it moved to Washington," Selig said. "He did a remarkable job managing in both locations and I am very proud of him. Frank is an important part of the game and that will never change."

So for now, Robinson is waiting, just like the front office above him and the players below him. Though Kasten and, perhaps, Bowden will have more direct say in his future with the organization, Robinson would like to meet with Lerner and his son, Mark, when the sale is complete. A legend, he figures, needs to know what his legacy will be.

"Let's sit down and talk about where and how I would fit here, in this organization, or if they want me here at all," Robinson said. "That, to me, would be the discussion, and the people that I would like to discuss it with. Do they want me here? Do they want me involved for the present and the future, not just for the rest of this year or a year after? Do they want me involved in any of that?"

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