Countdown Begins For Nats' Manager

A Nats fan shows his support for the departing Robinson, a Hall of Famer.
A Nats fan shows his support for the departing Robinson, a Hall of Famer. (By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006

He was greeted by a few posters behind the home dugout, by well-wishers, by 'thank yous' and a brief but enthusiastic chant of "We love Frank!" He was met, before the game started, by a father and son who wanted to hand him a picture. Not, this time, for Frank Robinson to autograph, but one they had signed for him, Robinson posing with fans. And on it, according to Washington Nationals' bench coach Eddie Rodriguez, were written "beautiful things."

"So many people wanted to tell him," Rodriguez said, "just simple stuff. 'Thanks for the memories.' "

Robinson's farewell weekend as the Nationals' manager began last night with a 4-3 loss to the New York Mets, one that leaves just two more games in the Hall of Famer's on-field career. Sources confirmed yesterday what Robinson had made quite plain a day earlier: He was told in meetings with General Manager Jim Bowden and President Stan Kasten that he would not be asked back as manager, and all that awaits is a formal announcement.

So the game, very early on, was secondary. The Mets, even with a tissue-thin rotation, are headed to the playoffs as the National League East champions. The Nationals, even as they have played decent baseball over the last month, have the cellar locked up. No amount of emotion can change any of that.

But the two remaining games are all Robinson has left on a baseball field, where he has spent his entire working life, 51 years in all. He said after the game that he had no expectations for what his interactions with the fans might be like.

"Take what comes," he said. "Take life as it comes."

Because the Nationals have not formally announced his status, there has been no schedule released for any ceremony honoring Robinson, who has served the last five seasons as the franchise's manager -- three of those years in Montreal -- but made a far greater impact on the history of the game by first becoming the only man to win an MVP award in both leagues and then becoming the majors' first African American manager in 1975.

Kasten, who has not publicly acknowledged the fact that Robinson won't be asked back, told reporters at a speech at the National Press Club yesterday that Robinson's career "deserves to be cherished and respected" and that a tribute would happen "at the appropriate time." Indeed, club officials were busy gathering video clips of Robinson, ostensibly for a montage to be shown on the large scoreboard in right field at RFK Stadium during one or both of the season's final two games.

Robinson, though, tried his best to make yesterday a normal day, to find his normal rhythm, the one that has kept him in baseball past his 71st birthday. It was no easy task, what with the Nationals completing a game after 2 a.m. yesterday, then returning to the ballpark to face the Mets.

So when the game was being played, Robinson leaned against the railing in the dugout, peering out from under his red cap emblazoned with the script "W." He watched his starting pitcher, right-hander Tony Armas Jr., throw an ungodly 112 pitches in five innings, allowing only two runs but frustrating his manager nonetheless.

"Too many pitches," Robinson said, the refrain he has used time and again with Armas. He pointed out, in typical bluntness, that Armas finds one bad inning when it "seems like he loses all concept of how to pitch."

The Nationals, though, hung in on this one, taking a 2-1 lead on Ryan Zimmerman's 110th RBI of the season in the fourth, then a 3-2 lead on Ryan Church's second homer in as many nights in the fifth. But reliever Ryan Wagner allowed the tying run in the seventh, and Jon Rauch gave up the go-ahead run on Shawn Green's sacrifice fly in the eighth.

The results still matter to Robinson, as they do to his team. Though the players haven't been told of their manager's fate, they understand what's coming.

"I hope the last two games, we can go out and get a 'W' for him," Church said.

But beyond that, they will be games for Robinson to do things he has never done before. He may, indeed, have the opportunity for a farewell speech, though he's not sure how he'd handle it.

"Just from the heart, and whatever ad lib comes to my head," he said. "Nothing prepared. That's why sometimes it makes it sound like I'm a little off, and I go off into different directions. But I just try to say what's in my heart, and what I want to say is what comes out. That works best for me rather than trying to prepare something."

He was unprepared for what he saw last night. Rodriguez has spent the last three years as Robinson's bench coach, at his side for every pitch of every game. In between innings last night, a fan caught Robinson's attention. He wanted an autograph. An autographed baseball.

"I've never seen him autograph a ball during a game for somebody, and he did," Rodriguez said. "It's really odd, and really significant."

Asked if there was a feeling of finality to it all, Rodriguez said, "You better believe it." And by the break between the eighth and ninth innings, he was turning and directly interacting with the fans, promising them autographs later on. Headed to the bottom of the ninth, he was asking the bat boys for baseballs, rolling them over the top of the dugout to awaiting fans, some of whom snapped pictures.

He has two more days in uniform. He says he doesn't know what to expect. Clearly, though, he will relish them.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company