A June 16 article incorrectly said that Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson was less than two months from his 70th birthday. Robinson's birthday is Aug. 31. (Published 7/1/2005)
The man who stood on the first base line Tuesday night at Angel Stadium wore wraparound sunglasses to protect his right eye, on which surgery was performed just a day earlier. He has a surgically replaced hip, slowing his gait to a hobble. He had prostate cancer, overcame it, and went back to work. Yet Frank Robinson, less than two months shy of his 70th birthday, stared and glared, ready for a fight.
Tuesday night, with the Nationals trailing the Anaheim Angels by two runs, came just the latest example that Robinson is no less passionate now than he was in his twenties, when he gained a reputation as one of the game's most intense players.
That intensity is evident nearly a half-century after he began his Hall of Fame career, and it seems to draw unexpected and inspiring performances from the Nationals, who Robinson has guided into first place in the National League East Division by deftly balancing competitiveness with camaraderie.
Robinson came out of the dugout in the top of the seventh inning and accused Angels relief pitcher Brendan Donnelly of having pine tar on his glove. The sticky black goop, which could help a pitcher gain a better grip on the ball and slightly alter its flight, is illegal, as is any "foreign substance" that could be applied to a baseball. Robinson said he and his coaching staff had seen videotape that indicated Donnelly might be cheating.
The umpiring crew checked Donnelly's glove, and there it was: pine tar. Then, the real controversy began. Donnelly was immediately ejected. Robinson's counterpart, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, called for another pitcher and then walked straight to Robinson, who stood still, staring through those shades. Scioscia's comments were brief, but pointed. He said he would have any Nationals pitcher "undressed" when he came into the game, searched anywhere for a foreign substance, in retaliation.
"Let me tell you this," Robinson said Wednesday afternoon. "If people let me intimidate them, then I'll intimidate them. But I wasn't going to let him intimidate me. I am the intimidator."
So on the field, Robinson stepped forward, lunging toward Scioscia, a former catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who is 23 years his junior.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing!" said Barbara Robinson, who sat directly behind the Nationals dugout, all of 100 feet from her husband of 44 years. "I'm looking at this, looking at the game, and we're in first place, and all this stuff is going on, and I just had a hard time comprehending it."
She paused, and considered another question. "I know my husband," she said. The surprise didn't hold up to further consideration.
"You know, age is just a number," Barbara Robinson said. "He enjoys this game, and he loves this game, like he did when he was younger. I don't think of him as 69, 70. He is passionate about this. He believes in rules, and he respects the game. He reveres this game."
Scioscia said Wednesday that he wasn't trying to intimidate Robinson, that he was merely letting the Nationals -- and the umpires -- know that when a Nationals pitcher entered the game, Scioscia was going to ask the umpires to check his glove for a foreign substance as well, which he did when the Nationals called upon reliever Gary Majewski.
"Nobody in this game is going to be intimidated -- certainly not Frank Robinson," Scioscia said. "I'm not going to be intimidated. . . . My motive wasn't to intimidate."
The skirmish, in which both benches and bullpens emptied, seemed to incite the Nationals. Right fielder Jose Guillen, the tempestuous slugger who was suspended by the Angels and later traded to the Nationals in part because of a run-in with Scioscia last September, had to be restrained by at least two Nationals employees and pulled to the dugout. Guillen reiterated Wednesday that he felt Scioscia hadn't shown Robinson proper respect.
"Last year, when I got suspended, Mike was talking about respect," Guillen said. "To me, he showed no class yesterday. I don't know what he's talking about -- respect. He can go look in the mirror."
In the hours after the incident, Robinson said he had "lost a lot of respect for Mike tonight, as a person and as a manager," and indicated that he wouldn't accept any sort of apology. He didn't waver from that stance Wednesday.
"As far as forgiveness and stuff, I don't feel like it right now," Robinson said. "I'm not that type of person. You step on my toe, it hurts for a while, and I'm not going to forgive you for stepping on my toe until maybe it stops hurting. Then, I might think about it."
Robinson insisted again that he believes Donnelly also had sandpaper in his hand, which would have been used to illegally scuff the ball in order to alter its flight.
"I'd bet the ranch on it," Robinson said.
"Absolutely ridiculous," Scioscia countered.
Robinson's impassioned reaction shows that, even as he has aged, he still holds the traits for which he was known as a player.
"Frank's not going to let anybody intimidate him," said Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, who played for Robinson in San Francisco. "I think I have seen him mellow some. I think he was a little more fiery when I played for him. But the toughness is never going to go away. The core is never going to change."
Guiding the Nationals is Robinson's fourth managing job, following stints in Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore, and he has never won a championship of any kind. He took over the Nationals in 2002, when the team was the Montreal Expos, and doesn't have a reputation as a master strategist. In a poll of more than 450 major league players taken by Sports Illustrated magazine during that spring training, Robinson tied Texas's Buck Showalter for the title of worst manager in baseball, drawing 12 percent of the vote. Occasionally, he makes moves other managers wouldn't, such as bunting early in games, and has an admitted disdain for statistics, which guide the decision-making processes used by most managers.
Yet he has clearly connected with these Nationals, and shown a willingness to fight for them. On May 30, he successfully argued that a home run be taken away from the Atlanta Braves, and the Nationals won. Tuesday night, Guillen responded to the squabble by hitting a game-tying, two-run home run in the eighth inning, sparking the Nationals to a 6-3 victory.
"The support that Frank got from the players immediately was shown," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said. "If you just studied the eyes of the players after that incident, this place changed. This will be a game that will be very memorable come October."
Wednesday morning, Robinson -- who makes his offseason home in Los Angeles -- went back to the eye doctor. He had corrective laser surgery on his eyes last November, and his right eye needed tweaking on Monday. The final checkup, Barbara Robinson said, was flawless.
"The doctor couldn't believe how quickly he healed," she said. "They're amazed at him."
And, she said, he is amazed by his team. When asked about the Nationals' run to first place, Robinson deflects praise. It is the players, he says. But Barbara Robinson, watching from the stands Tuesday night, could see that twinkle in her husband's eyes, gleaming through his dark sunglasses.
"He loves this team," she said. "I thought he loved the team in Montreal, but this team is unbelievable. I don't know what it is, and I don't know how long it's going to last. But I can tell you: He loves every second. It's like he's died and gone to heaven already."