Royals' Streak May Take Robinson 'Off the Hook'

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005 12:48 PM

PHILADELPHIA -- It was a job he did not want. What manager with a firm grasp of his sanity and a legacy bronzed in Cooperstown takes on disaster six games into its season?

But former Orioles Owner Edward Bennett Williams had a convincing way. And upon concluding that Cal Ripken Sr. could not continue as his manager in the first week of the 1988 season, Williams's first choice to replace him was Frank Robinson, who of course was not interested in a team that had lost its first six games and seemed destined to drop many, many more.

"What if I say no?" Robinson asked.

"Then I'll find somebody else," Williams said.

Robinson said yes, and the next-to-last player to win a triple crown, the owner of 586 home runs, penned himself a new legacy: He became the proud manager of a team that went on to set a major league record with 21 straight losses.

Today somebody cheerily pointed out that the Kansas City Royals, with 18 consecutive defeats, are on the verge of taking Robinson "off the hook."

Robinson laughed.

"There will always be a hook to the 21 losses in a row," he said. If the Royals pass the Orioles, "then it will go down as the only team to lose 21 to start the season. I won't ever be off the hook."

But there was empathy this morning from the only man who could know what Kansas City Manager Buddy Bell is going through.

"What it becomes is that you expect something is going to happen because you keep losing," Robinson said. "You're going to make a bad play, you're going to make a bad throw, you're going to give up a home run. You expect to lose. That's what it is."

The way the Royals are playing these days, they seem a lock to race past Baltimore and into the history books. They look dreadful, especially after they gave up 11 runs in the ninth inning of loss No. 11, blowing a 7-2 lead. Then again, so did the 1988 Orioles, who made things seem worse by losing for nearly the entire month of April before finally getting their first win in a blowout in Chicago.

"It was like the World Series, it really was," Robinson said.

The fiery manager found himself remarkably calm in the midst of the streak. Somebody this morning remembered him screaming at a television cameraman, but Robinson played coy, pretending not to remember while recalling the moment quite well.

It was an imaginative time for him; he had to invent ways to divert pressure from his sputtering team. He tried to tell funny stories, play jokes, laugh, do anything to keep the clubhouse light even as the defeats piled up.

Can something like this devour a manager?

"Only if you let it," he said. "I'm not going to let that stuff drive me crazy."

He never asked "Why me?" Mostly he rode it out, praying for a win and figured he'd use the losing as a learning experience for the next season.

Was there one play, one moment that year that tore him up more than any other?

Robinson laughed.

"Yeah, everything after loss 10 or 11," he said. "You couldn't believe it."

But then that's what the whole month was like. Nothing seemed to go right. And even after the streak was over and 50,000 fans came out to Memorial Stadium to welcome the team home, the Orioles kept losing. They finished the season 54-107, which meant that Robinson was 54-101 after saying "yes" to Williams. For someone who never thought he would manage again after seven years in Cleveland and San Francisco, it was tough to digest.

Yet an overhaul the next year brought relief and the team that lost and lost and lost the year before won 87 games in 1989 and finished in second place in the American League East. Robinson figures the Royals will have to make the same kind of changes.

"How can you go back with the same ballclub next season?" he asked. "Even that (small budget) team can make changes."

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