By Mike Wise
Sunday, July 12, 2009
This is all you need to know about Frank Robinson. Sometimes he telephones Manny Acta, the guy who took his job and who faces a similar fate, "just to try to cheer him up, speak a positive word to him."
"I appreciate the call, Skip," Acta will say to Robinson.
Before baseball returned to the District, Robinson was tired of seeing an intuitive young manager, who happened to be of Latin descent, stuck in the minors forever. So he brought Manny to Montreal. This was long before things became mucked up -- before Jim Bowden, Stan Kasten or any of the titans of commerce who own the woebegone Washington Nationals came along.
As the losses pile up like hotcakes at a Rotary Club breakfast, as one of the worst major league teams in a half-century plods along, Acta's head is squarely on the chopping block, ready to be sacrificed for the larger, systemic issues plaguing the Nationals.
"It's never the manager's fault," Robinson said during a recent 30-minute interview in Los Angeles. "It's his responsibility to get players to play better than they're probably capable of playing. But that's not always going to happen."
Like Robinson before him, Acta started quickly and could do no wrong that first season. And like Robinson, Acta will eventually pay for all the spendthrift and impetuous ways from above.
"They keep making the same mistakes really," Robinson said of baseball in general. "I'm not saying it's not the manager at any time, but it's usually the personnel not meshing or doing the job, needing a tweaking here and there. Or most of the time you need patience with a franchise like the Nationals."
It has been almost three years since Bowden, the team's former general manager; Kasten, the team president; and by association the Lerner family uncomfortably strung Robinson along until the very end of his second season in Washington. That's how Frank Robinson said it went down.
As a special assistant to Commissioner Bud Selig, living in Los Angeles but often working out of a satellite office in Arizona, Robinson has obviously moved on. But his version of events in the last months of his tenure -- especially the lack of straightforwardness afforded one of the game's legends -- is enough to make one wince.
Robinson said he first asked Bowden in July 2006 if the organization wanted him to return. Bowden, he said, asked what he was looking for in the way of salary. "I ask for a million a year and I said I could go for two or three more years," Robinson said he told him.
"Well, you better ask for a little bit more," Bowden said, according to Robinson. "Because you know the way they are; they'll cut you down."
Bowden said he would get back to Robinson but kept putting him off, Robinson said. "Finally, I said point blank, 'Jim, if you're back as general manager, am I your manager next year?' He said, 'Absolutely.' That's good enough for me. I hold people to their word."
The hemming and hawing continued into September. "I'd ask Stan, he'd say it's Jim," Robinson said "I'd ask Jim, he'd say I got to talk to Stan. Never could get them together."
Kasten eventually came to Robinson's office, he said, and was surprised to hear Robinson say he wanted to manage for three more years.
"Oh, wow," Robinson said Kasten told him, relating the conversation.
"That's a little surprising."
Later on, Kasten said, "You're in good shape at your age, you're still very sharp, your mind is working."
"Yeah, I think I can do it. My health is good."
"Well, let me think about it," Kasten said, according to Robinson. "I'll talk it over with Jim and I'll get back to you."
"But he said, 'No matter what happens here, you'll always have a job here because you're a good baseball man and we'd like to have you in this organization and take advantage of your skills, ability and knowledge.' "
Robinson eventually forced their hand, demanding to know before he returned home for the season. Bowden told him he was out the next day.
"It was their prerogative to change the manager, but I just thought I deserved for them to be more forthright with me, up front," he said. "If they wanted to go in a different direction, tell me."
"Another thing," Robinson added. "They tried to play up my goodbye to the fans like it was their idea. No, I asked for it."
Did we mention the Nationals have yet to have a day to honor Frank Robinson, the man who, with no payroll or superstar to speak of, somehow coaxed an incredible first half out of his first team before the Nats found their water level at .500 in 2005?
"They tried to rush one through the same year that I left," Robinson said, alluding to the plan to honor him before a game against the Orioles in May 2007. "Jim Bowden thought it was great, but I told him it was a little too quick, too early. I wouldn't be in a good mood coming back there that quickly and accepting something from anybody. I just couldn't put on that front. It's not me. I couldn't have played that part.
"Of course, I'll certainly be open to do that now, to come back there and be honored," he said. "But I haven't heard from them."
For their part, the organization disputes some of Robinson's version of his eventual firing. In regard to a special day, Kasten and the Nationals stopped trying after the first two years but are certainly still "open to the idea."
Open to the idea?
He was the first black manager in major league history. Just six players have walloped more home runs than Robinson's 586, and two of them likely needed help from synthetic chemists. No one except Robinson, who played for 21 seasons, ever won the MVP in both the National and American leagues.
Look, less than two months shy of 74, Frank Robinson is on the Mount Rushmore of greatest living ballplayers, certainly after Henry Aaron and Willie Mays and I would argue somewhere between Stan Musial and Johnny Bench.
How about repairing that bridge, like, today?
Robinson said he watches the Nationals all the time, adding: "No hard feelings. I've moved on. I'm a bigger person."
He was asked if major league officials made the right decision in giving the Lerners the team.
"I don't know," Robinson said. "I will say this: When they decided to give it to the Lerner group, they absolutely thought it was the right thing to do. And I am not saying it was the wrong thing to do right now, because they've still got some time to go. But at the time, I'm sure they thought it was a good decision.
"They're still trying to find their way," he said. "They've got some good young talent, especially in the pitching. If they continue down the right road and don't panic, they should be a good team in two or three years."
That's what they said when they got rid of Frank Robinson, a proud baseball man who deserves a new beginning here like he once deserved a better ending.