A Bad Break

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, January 12, 2007

In the past five months, the Nationals have pushed Frank Robinson out the door, closed it behind him and changed the locks.

He's mad. They're glad. Fans who believed the Nationals and Robinson would stay friends for years can say only, "Egads!"

Dozens of decisions will define the early years of the Nationals in Washington under the Lerner family and team president Stan Kasten. This was definitely one of them. And it's going to leave a bruise -- a big one.

In 2005, the fiery yet venerable Robinson was the face of the franchise. Now, he's the 71-year-old legend who's been shunted aside because, apparently, he is simply considered too big a pain in the neck, too large an ego, to be allowed anywhere near the blank canvas on which the hyper-confident Kasten and his general manager, Jim Bowden, assume they'll paint a masterpiece.

"I'm done with them," Robinson told The Post on Wednesday. "I have nothing against the organization per se. It's two people that I'm concerned with: Jim and Stan."

Robinson has every right to be angry. The Nationals' best contract offer to him? Well, there was no contract. The team chewed on its options for months, then decided that the most it would offer Frank was a plane ticket to Florida. They'd pay his expenses to Viera if he wanted to offer his opinions under such humiliating circumstances -- which, of course, he wouldn't.

"That's an insult to me," Robinson said. "Come on. What did I want to do, just be a token or a ceremonial-type guy? I don't need that. I have too much to offer."

Obviously, the Nationals disagree. They don't think he has much to offer at all. If they did, they'd have provided Robinson the kind of deal that was discussed internally, according to sources: a consulting contract to provide advice on trades, evaluate players, offer occasional instruction to hitters and serve as one of the team faces in the community. Instead, no job of substance was proffered. So, the final chapter of the Nationals' relationship with Robinson is similar to the kind of addition-by-subtraction trade that sends away a too-much-trouble player for a bag of broken bats.

Like it or not, and plenty of Nationals fans won't like it at all, the franchise has rendered its internal verdict: The team essentially agrees with those two Sports Illustrated player polls in which Robinson was voted Worst Manager in Baseball. In an organization that will emphasize youth, a high-energy work ethic and instruction in fundamentals, Robinson was seen as a bad fit.

"I'm disappointed, no doubt about it," Robinson said. "I would have loved to have been a part of the organization and be a part of the District with the fans there. But when people don't make you feel like you're needed or wanted or are warm about it, or reach out to you, there's no sense in trying to force yourself on people."

Robinson didn't just burn his bridges last summer. By publicly lobbying for months for a three-year managing contract, then talking about a significant post-managing job with hiring-and-firing responsibilities, Robinson dynamited his fragile bonds with the new Lerner-Kasten-Bowden power structure. But what would you expect? At 71, Robinson wasn't about to stop being Take-Me-or-Leave-Me Frank.

Over the last 30 years I've found Robinson to be one of the smartest baseball men and one of the best natural leaders in the sport. Few have more insights into others. Nobody is more candid. On the other hand, Robinson can be indifferent to hurting the feelings of others. He tends to force everybody around him into a friend-or-foe stance. Nobody in the game demands more respect for himself. Yet he is thin-skinned and often on the lookout for slights. He dishes it out but hates to take it.

Last spring, I listened as Robinson went into a 10-minute fuming monologue about how the Nationals had insulted him -- by not giving him the right cellphone plan. Others in the front office had a different plan. What did it mean? Was he out of the loop? Was it a hint he wasn't wanted? Why, it was an injustice. To him, anyway.

"That's a glimpse. He's not a guy who endears himself," a team source said. "He has a long history of a short shelf life."

The Nationals are one of the rare teams in baseball history with a chance to completely remake itself. They're in a new town, getting ready to play in a new revenue-spewing park in 2008. If you have such a blank canvas, and are confident-to-cocky that you can create a masterpiece, then maybe the last guy you'd want walking around your painting with a bottle of ink in his hand is a grouchy Frank Robinson after he's been sacked as manager.

Robinson has said: "I'm not bitter. I'm just disappointed."

So am I. Both sides have powerfully valid points. But a compromise should have been possible.

The Lerner family and especially Kasten, with his spectacular record in Atlanta, have every right to pick their own people. And avoid problems. The Braves' front-office operation usually was a lake without a ripple. Everybody had input. But nobody made waves. Frank can be a tsunami.

However, Robinson not only is one of baseball's largest figures but also one of its most admirable characters, too. How could he have accomplished all he did, as a player and as the first African American manager, if his backbone had been rubber, if his heart had pounded less strongly or if his brain, once convinced he was right, had waffled? You take, or leave, Frank as a whole.

Baseball in general and the Expos-Nationals in particular, have a debt to Robinson. At a minimum, those like Robinson who kept the Expos competitive on the field added $100 million to baseball's pockets when the team was sold for $450 million. That debt, measured in money or simply in loyalty and forbearance, hasn't been paid. It's simply been torn up and tossed away.

The Nationals' president, on whose desk this buck stops, speaks no ill of Robinson. "I was really torn," Kasten said yesterday. "That's why the decision took so long."

But sometimes actions equal words. Clearly, Kasten has decided he would rather take the public relations heat than live indefinitely with Robinson in the midst of his and Bowden's operation.

When Kasten arrived in town, he spoke like a Robinson fan, time after time. Now, by his winter deeds, he's clearly shown that his summer words no longer apply.

What's next for Robinson now that he and Washington have divorced? Perhaps his former team in Baltimore, a franchise that has specialized in bitter separations and public-relations nightmares for the last decade, can find a dignified, but not too vital consulting position for a savvy, crabby old Oriole. After all, what do they have to lose? Their canvas got slashed long ago.

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