Frank Robinson walks through the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, and inevitably the eyes of his players follow. But what is it they see? A 69-year-old man with an old man's shuffle-gait? Another generic authority figure to be distrusted? Or one of the three or four greatest living ballplayers -- a man who ought to be respected, celebrated and utilized as a priceless baseball resource?

Joey Eischen, a veteran left-hander who made his big-league debut in 1994, shakes his head at the question.

"Half these guys," he says, looking around the Nationals' clubhouse, "couldn't tell you what decade Frank played in. This is the what-can-you-do-for-me generation. We're playing for one of the best players ever to play the game of baseball. Guys don't realize what they have."

Eischen's contention was demonstrated in an unscientific experiment. Seven Nationals players were asked how many homers Robinson had hit in his playing career. None of the seven knew. Finally, the question was put to a ringer: Jeffrey Hammonds, a 34-year-old non-roster spring invitee whose close relationship with Robinson dates back 13 years.

"Five hundred eighty-six," Hammonds said, insulted anyone might question his knowledge. "C'mon, man. Triple Crown in 1966. MVP in both leagues. First black manager in history. And as great a man as he was a ballplayer."

The other players who were polled insisted they had the highest respect for their manager, even if they didn't know his exact home run total. "He's one of those guys who, when he says something," said reliever Gary Majewski, "you drop everything and listen."

"Everybody knows his legacy," said outfielder Tyrell Godwin. "I was intimidated when I first met him. You sit back and say, 'Man, that's Frank Robinson.' You realize he was one of the greats of the game, and he paved the way for a lot of us."

Robinson is understandably proud of his playing record and quick to defend it to outsiders. When a reporter asks him who is the best player he ever managed -- perhaps Vladimir Guerrero, or Joe Morgan or Cal Ripken? -- Robinson shakes his head and sticks his thumb into his own chest, as if to say: "Me." Indeed, you can look it up: He was player-manager in Cleveland in 1975 and '76.

But proud as he is, when the results of the unscientific poll of his clubhouse are relayed to him, Robinson smiles and claims to not be bothered by his players' lack of knowledge.

"This generation doesn't know or care too much about the history," he says. "They don't keep up with it. They only keep up with what's happening in the present. And this didn't just start this year or last year. It's this whole generation of players. So, no, it doesn't bother me."

As adept as he was on a baseball diamond in his prime, he is equally adept now at the game of clubhouse politics. A few weeks back, Robinson sat down for a lengthy interview with Sports Illustrated for what he thought was a cover story on the team and its move to Washington. The interview, he said, was split between questions about the team and about Robinson's own career.

But when the story came out a few days ago -- bumped off the cover, incidentally, by a first-person account of an SI staffer who spent a few days as a player in the Toronto Blue Jays' camp -- it was almost entirely about Robinson, a fact that made him cringe.

"What I have to be very careful of is [the players] thinking I'm trying to beat my own drum and take the headline," Robinson says. "I once had a player -- a guy who is still here -- who said to someone else, 'Why does [Robinson] get all the ink? I have to be very careful of how much I do and say. I don't like talking about what I've done or what I've accomplished. The important thing is what I do now. I manage this ballclub. I'm very careful not to talk too much about my reputation, because I know the way most of the players feel."

What does bother Robinson, however, is the fact that his place in the game is being diminished, year by year, by a seemingly unending stream of modern players eclipsing his numbers -- aided by today's smaller ballparks, better training methods and perhaps the use of steroids.

Barry Bonds bumped him from fourth to fifth on the all-time home run list a couple of years ago. Sammy Sosa (574) and Rafael Palmeiro (551) could get him this season. It's not unreasonable to expect Robinson to be pushed clear out of the top 10 by the early part of the next decade.

"The farther you slip down [the list], the less you're going to be mentioned. People will forget all about you, period," he says. "Tell me how many people beyond the top 10 get mentioned? I remember when it was always the top four -- Aaron, Ruth, Mays and me [the order that existed, unchanged, for 30 years]. So, yeah, it does bother me. But there's nothing I can do about it. It's going to happen. I've joked that by the time I leave this earth, I may be 99th."

And if some of those players passing Robinson have been aided by performance-enhancing drugs?

"I don't waste any time dwelling on that," he says. "What am I going to do about it anyway? I know I had a good career. But that's just the way life is."

While Robinson is reluctant to discuss the steroid scandal -- wary of sounding like a bitter old man -- he is aware of every twist and turn in the story, every new development. Is it any wonder? Nothing less than his legacy is at stake.

"You know when it may bother me the most?" he says. "When I'm retired and sitting on a beach somewhere, looking out there and reflecting. Or one day, in time, when some kids will be looking over the home run list. And they'll say, 'Hey, I thought you were a home run hitter.' And I'll say I was.

"And they'll say, 'Yeah? But you don't even show up on the list in the top 25 or 30. You only hit 586.' "

"This generation doesn't know or care too much about [baseball history. . . . but] it doesn't bother me," says Washington Manager Frank Robinson, right. "When he says something, you drop everything and listen," Washington reliever Gary Majewski says of Robinson. "I don't waste any time dwelling on [the steroid issue]" and today's players surpassing his career totals, says Robinson. "I know I had a good career."