By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006
The Washington Nationals are preparing to tell Frank Robinson that he will not be asked back as manager next season, sources said yesterday.
Team President Stan Kasten declined to comment on the decision last night. But partners in the team's ownership group -- headed by Theodore Lerner -- met yesterday with Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden, and there is no more significant or pressing on-field issue for the franchise than Robinson's future. His one-year, $650,000 contract is up after this season.
A discussion between the team's top officials and Robinson could happen as soon as today, but it almost certainly will take place by Monday, the day after the 71-year-old manager's fifth season at the helm of the franchise concludes. It is unclear whether he will be offered another position within the organization.
"I'm not going to dignify any reports out there," Robinson said after last night's 14-inning loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, which ended hours after the report of the club's decision appeared on washingtonpost.com.
Robinson, a Hall of Famer who hit 586 home runs as a player and is completing his 16th season as a manager, said before last night's game against the Philadelphia Phillies that he had not met with either Kasten or Bowden about his future, though he has wanted a meeting for several weeks. Bowden has not been in contact with Robinson since the team returned from a weekend series in New York against the Mets.
That increasing lack of communication, in part, has led to a growing feeling among members of the team, coaching staff, front office and, to a degree, even Robinson himself that a decision has been made. But officials are wrestling with how to best tell Robinson, a proud man with a deep history in the game who has, in many ways, served as the face of the Nationals franchise since it arrived here from Montreal before the 2005 season.
Robinson's impending dismissal is a delicate matter. The Nationals' franchise changed ownership this season -- from Major League Baseball, the club's steward since 2002, to the Lerner family -- and Robinson had been hired by Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig himself. Kasten has begun an overhaul of the team's front office and player development department, and is preaching patience to fans of a club that has secured its third straight last-place finish.
"We are not where we need to be," Kasten said last night. "But we do have a plan, and I'm really excited about that plan."
Asked how important the manager and the coaching staff are to the rebuilding process, Kasten said: "Of course it's important. No question about it." He would not elaborate.
In recent weeks, Robinson has been candid about his desire to know about his future before the season ends. "If it's time to go, at least I want to be able to say goodbye," he said in an interview last week.
If club officials are to follow Robinson's wish, it likely will have to happen by tomorrow. The Nationals are preparing for their final series of the year against the New York Mets, which they have dubbed "Fan Appreciation Weekend." In theory, Robinson -- who has a career record of 1,064-1,173-- could be recognized during that series. In addition, the Lerners are devout Jews, and they are unlikely to make a major announcement during the upcoming holiday weekend.
One source cautioned that a decision on the precise timing of telling Robinson hadn't been made. Another source, however, said Robinson had been assured in a brief meeting earlier this summer that he would not be forced to travel back to his offseason home of Los Angeles without knowing his fate.
This year's Nationals, predicted by most to place fourth in the five-team National League East, got off to a horrendous 8-17 April and never recovered. They took hold of last place in the division June 29 and have been there since. Buoyed, however, by the play of rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and some promising young pitchers, they have played better over the final month of the season, going 14-11 in September.
Robinson said yesterday he took some solace that his team didn't completely unravel in the final weeks of the year.
"That's my approach," Robinson said. "Always has been and always will be. And the fact [is] that I don't remember any team that I've had in five years [with this franchise] that hasn't played the 162-game schedule the way it's supposed to be played -- every ballgame. That's outstanding."
Still, there has long been a feeling among front-office members that Robinson is not the long-term solution for a club that likely won't be ready to contend for a division title for at least two or three seasons. His teams, usually not laden with top talent, have never won a championship of any kind, and when this year ends, he will have finished with a winning record five times in the 15 non-strike seasons in which he has managed.
Who will replace Robinson -- and when the hire will be made -- is unclear as well. In recent days, New York Yankees coach Tony Peña has been linked to the job. Peña, a former manager in Kansas City, knows Bowden from their time together with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when Peña was a catcher and Bowden working his way up in the front office. Bowden tried to hire Peña as a coach this past offseason.
"I know him very well," Peña said this week. "I knew him since he worked with Pittsburgh. Jimmy is Jimmy. We've talked several times when we've gotten together."
Atlanta Braves third base coach Fredi Gonzalez is also considered a hot managerial candidate who could be coveted by the Florida Marlins, who are expected to fire Manager Joe Girardi. Former major league manager Lou Piniella managed for Bowden in Cincinnati. Davey Johnson, who also managed for Bowden in Cincinnati and did consulting work for the Nationals this summer, is not expected to be a candidate.
Staff writer Jorge Arangure Jr. contributed to this report from New York.