Nats' Robinson Bids a Fond Farewell

Manager Frank Robinson is surrounded by his team before the start of their game at RFK Stadium. Robinson will not return as the Nationals' manager in 2007, the team announced Saturday, possibly ending the Hall of Famer's 51-year career in baseball.
Manager Frank Robinson is surrounded by his team before the start of their game at RFK Stadium. Robinson will not return as the Nationals' manager in 2007, the team announced Saturday, possibly ending the Hall of Famer's 51-year career in baseball. (Kevin Wolf - AP)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006

Frank Robinson first donned a major league uniform on April 17, 1956, a skinny 20-year-old rookie outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds. Among baseball men of a certain age and mien, the act of putting on that uniform is a cherished rite, never to be taken for granted. And late yesterday afternoon, in his dimly lit office beneath an empty stadium, nearly an hour after the Washington Nationals' second season in the nation's capital and Robinson's 51st in baseball had come to a close, he stood up at his desk behind a closed door and removed his uniform for the last time.

Anyone who has been in the public eye for more than half a century surely fears nothing more than being forgotten, and Robinson, who last week was let go as the Nationals' manager, need not worry. A Hall of Famer as a player, and the first black manager in major league history, Robinson was honored at RFK Stadium yesterday afternoon, a day in which the most touching moments were the ones that were the least scripted.

"It was everything and more than I thought it would be," Robinson, 71, said at the end of a long answer to a short question that could have been about the day, the two-year stint in Washington or the entire 51-season run as a baseball player, executive and manager. "It's been a good ride. It's been a good ride."

The Nationals' season-ending 6-2 loss to the playoff-bound New York Mets before a crowd of 29,044 -- a drama-less affair that contained scarcely a memorable moment itself -- began with a speech from Robinson near home plate and ended nearly three hours later with Nationals closer Chad Cordero, of all people, looking at a called strike three for the final out.

The loss, fittingly constructed on awful starting pitching and numerous failures in clutch situations, ended a season in which the Nationals went 71-91 -- a 10-game decline from their uplifting inaugural season in Washington -- and which saw them get new owners and break ground on a new stadium, developments that hopefully portend a better future, one that will go forward without Robinson.

"I don't want people feeling sorry for me," Robinson said when it was over, stressing his desire to remain involved in baseball, whether with the Nationals or elsewhere. "If they want to use me, my brain, my knowledge, whatever, then you might see me again."

Minutes before the scheduled first pitch, and with both teams on the top steps of their dugouts, everyone -- including Robinson and his family -- was treated to a video montage of his career, shown on the giant screen above right field. When it was over, Robinson moved slowly and gingerly to the microphone to address the crowd.

"I don't have any regrets about anything that has happened to me in this game," said Robinson, who did not prepare remarks, at the end of a gracious 10-minute speech in which he thanked the fans, his players and his family, and congratulated the Mets on their division title. "All I asked for was a chance, and I got that chance. . . . I've never done anything harder than what I have to do right now, and that's to say goodbye."

The crowd roared, and within seconds, Robinson was engulfed by players from both teams -- with the Mets, somewhat oddly, arriving first to embrace Robinson.

Earlier, in a pregame briefing with the media, Robinson said he expected to "put a little more value on each out, each play" as the game unfolded. "You try to remember what happened, just kind of take it all in."

Asked about his legacy, Robinson said: "It's really up to you all to say what my legacy is in baseball. All I know is I've been very fortunate to spend 51 years . . . "

And then he stopped, tears welling up in eyes. "I said I wasn't going to do this today," he muttered, slightly embarrassed at the display of emotion. Finally, he was able to continue: ". . . doing something I really love. There's not too many people [who] can say that."

Baseball is unique among America's major team sports in that it has no clock, yet as the shadows crept across the field yesterday afternoon, Robinson could feel the minutes and seconds ticking away. In the final innings, he spent the moments between innings tossing souvenir baseballs to the fans near the Nationals' dugout.

And when Cordero, forced to bat for himself in the bottom of the ninth because Robinson had run out of players, struck out to end the game, Nationals players streamed out of the dugout carrying hats, balls and bats, which they tossed into the stands. Each player also removed his jersey, to be presented as a gift to pre-selected fans.

But Robinson's uniform stayed on for quite some time -- even as he doffed his cap to the remaining fans, then took one last glance at the field and ducked into the tunnel.

"When you take off your uniform and put on a suit," Robinson had said earlier, "it's not the same."

His uniform -- bright red, "Nationals" on the front, "Robinson" on the back -- was still on when he addressed the media one final time.

"You retire when there is nothing else you want to do and you want to go home," he said. "But I don't. . . . I still think I have something to offer baseball itself. And as long as I feel that way and someone wants me around, I would like to be around the game and be involved. For anybody to understand what I'm saying right now [they] would have to be in this game for a while. It gets in your blood."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company