The manager, now late in his seventh decade of life, reclines in his darkened office not long before game time. A television flickers in the corner. There is a box of baseballs to be signed sitting on the desk. But it is the accessory, now commonplace in virtually every manager's arsenal, that Frank Robinson wants you to see is absent from his world.
"Look around," he says, leaning forward and waving his hands in the air. "Do you see a computer in here?"
Then he slumps back in his seat.
"I am computer illiterate," Robinson proclaims and beams with nothing so much as pride.
Heading into one of his team's biggest series of the year in Atlanta, the manager of the Nationals is still one of the last of the old baseball cowboys. A man who never needed a printout to see his second baseman couldn't hit left-handers or a radar gun to know a pitcher is throwing 95 mph. A man who doesn't stuff a stopwatch into the back pockets of his double-knit uniform pants and never manages with piles of statistics spilling across his desk.
When it comes to numbers, Robinson would rather just not know.
Which may, in part, be the reason that halfway through last season he handed one of the most cherished of all managerial duties -- the writing of the lineup -- to his bench coach, a relative baseball unknown who had been fired only months before in Arizona. Because as much as Robinson hates the numbers, Eddie Rodriguez adores them.
The numbers dance for Rodriguez. He sees them when he drives home from the ballpark. He twists them around in his sleep, looking for an elusive, never-discovered combination. Then, after a fitful rest, he rises with the morning sun, pours a cup of coffee, tears open the paper and begins the daylong process of trying to make the Nationals' offense come to life.
There is honesty in the numbers, and Rodriguez plays them well.
"What you try to do is position yourself where you have your best hitters available for what you are trying to do," he says.
And in this tumultuous first baseball season in Washington, where Robinson has had to squeeze every bit of productivity from a flawed roster further weakened by a run of injuries, the arrangement has nonetheless gotten the Nationals in first place -- no matter how precariously. Washington and Atlanta are tied for first in the National League East heading into tonight's game.
"I'm a delegator," Robinson says. "I like to let my coaches have authority."
"He's different from a lot of managers in that regard," Rodriguez says. "He totally trusts his people."
This is an unusual arrangement. Most managers love the power that comes with making out the daily lineup, especially in this age when every decision is dissected for the next 12 hours of talk radio. Some spend days trying to find the perfect combination in a batting order. Arizona Manager Bob Melvin writes out lineup cards for each game of an upcoming series before the series even begins. Buck Showalter of the Texas Rangers ponders a string of scenarios that involve each of the other team's relief pitchers and the potential innings they might come into games. Houston's Phil Garner draws little fields on pieces of paper, then starts filling names in each of the positions.
Robinson used to be like this. He agonized over his first lineup as player-manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975 before deciding to bat an aging outfielder named Frank Robinson second and use him as designated hitter. It became a move of genius when the designated hitter slammed a home run in his first at-bat.
But the times have changed. Baseball has become a game of matchups now. There are too many numbers available to ignore them. Who hits best against right-handers? Who is a good grass-field hitter? A road hitter? A dome hitter?
"The announcers on TV are always going, 'He's 2 for 3 against this pitcher.' I don't think it means anything until you get 75-100 at-bats against a pitcher," Robinson says. "The one thing I look for is a lot of strikeouts. If a guy has a lot of strikeouts against a pitcher, that means he doesn't give you anything against that guy. He won't be able to move the runners over. He won't be able to get a hit."
But even then he doesn't want to see the statistical evidence of his hitters' strikeout numbers. He taps his forehead.
"I've seen it," he says. "I know."
So it is up to Rodriguez to provide the numbers. The two men first met in the late 1990s, when Rodriguez was managing in the Arizona Fall League and Robinson was the instructional league's director of operations. They were reunited in 2003 when Robinson managed the U.S. Olympic qualifying team in the 2003 Pan American Games and Rodriguez was the third base coach. A few months later, when Rodriguez was fired by the Diamondbacks, he phoned Robinson, looking for job leads. Little did Rodriquez know the lead would become his hiring as Robinson's bench coach in Montreal with the Expos.
His job was to supply his boss with information, and he did this diligently. Rodriguez kept copious notes, flooding Robinson with more facts and statistics than the manager could ever know what to do with. Eventually, he started bringing by lineup suggestions. Robinson was impressed, so much so he gave Rodriguez the job of making up the lineup every day.
"I make sure it's okay," Robinson says about the lineup. "It's not official until he hands it to me. He will write it up, then show it to me and he's got a good feel for what things I like. Occasionally I'll say, 'Move this guy to second,' and, 'I'll put this guy seventh,' " Robinson says.
Both men admit this rarely happens. Almost always, when Rodriguez brings the lineups, Robinson will grab the card, study it, and grunt, "Okay."
There are the rare situations when Robinson will actually write out his own lineup. This happened last week when the manager decided to sit shortstop Cristian Guzman and third baseman Vinny Castilla for a few days. He wanted to talk to both players before the lineup was posted on the bulletin board across the hall from the clubhouse door. In this instance, Robinson called Rodriguez in the late morning to notify him of the change.
"I wanted to get him before he started doing the work," the manager says.
Which was, of course, preposterous because Rodriguez is always working on the lineup. Just the other night the coach's wife, Mavelin, caught her husband talking in his sleep about lineup possibilities while his fingers moved as if typing the order out on a computer keyboard.
He spends the morning after breakfast thinking more about lineups, sometimes breaking out the notes he keeps on the back of his lineup cards and rifling through his statistical data. He gets to the stadium about noon, where he sits in the coaches' office, opens his briefcase and spreads out his information.
Inside the briefcase he carries a stack of folders -- one for each team the Nationals play. The folders contain an endless log of vital tidbits that he has gleaned from his years in the game. If he thinks he picks up one of the opponents' signs, he jots it down. If a pitcher seems vulnerable to a bunt on the third base side of the mound, he writes this down too. Some of the information goes into a printout he makes for each game -- a list of things that might come up sometime in the evening. The rest of it goes into making the lineup.
Before writing out the batting order, he grabs a package of statistics provided by the league each day to consult the head-to-head matchups of the Washington hitters against that game's opposing pitcher. Usually something will be glaring. Maybe Jamey Carroll is hitting .481 against the pitcher, or Brad Wilkerson has never gotten a hit off the man. Unlike Robinson, Rodriguez thinks this matters, so he makes the lineup accordingly.
He does this by carefully typing each name into a laptop computer. He makes the lineups on a program he bought for $10 in 1994 called "Expert Forms," even adding the Nationals insignia, downloaded from the Internet. Then, he prints it on a portable printer. At around 1:30 p.m., when Robinson arrives, Rodriguez has the finished product ready for managerial perusal.
Upon Robinson's approval, he sits down to write out the official lineup cards, the ones that go to the umpires and opposing teams and the one that will be pinned to the dugout wall. The umpires' and opponent's cards are handwritten because Robinson does not like cards with names scratched out. The big card, the one that goes on the dugout wall, Rodriquez writes with a calligraphy pen.
"Obviously [Robinson] pushes the buttons, but I give him the most information I can," Rodriguez says. "At this level you're trying to find the combinations that give you the best chance to win. You're thinking three days down the road. You're obviously thinking what's going to fit in that slot."
Teacher and Student
Robinson seems appreciative of the information Rodriguez bombards him with and, for the most part, they work well in tandem. Nonetheless, there is the generational divide between the 69-year-old manager and his 46-year-old bench coach as well as a different understanding of the game. Robinson still approaches baseball like the superstar outfielder he was for many years. Rodriguez looks at it like a career minor league shortstop who has made it to the majors because of his willingness to work harder than everyone else.
For instance, there is the splitting of right-handed and left-handed hitters. Rodriguez is a devotee of the philosophy in which a right-handed hitter would be followed by a left-handed hitter in the lineup, thus ensuring that later in the game, the opposing manager would have to use several relief pitchers to get out of sticky situations if he wished to have the advantageous matchup of a left-handed pitcher facing a left-handed batter or vice versa.
Robinson shakes his head no.
"Eddie wants to do that left-right, left-right, left-right thing," he says. "I explained to him that's nice if you can do it, but you have to think about the seniority of everyone. You can't have a rookie hitting in front of a guy you have hitting seventh or eighth but who has 10 years in the league. You have to be conscious of that. That guy has been around, he has earned the right to be hitting up there.'
Rodriguez listens and takes notes. They sit together a lot in Robinson's office talking not just about the lineups but about game situations, baseball history, sometimes even life.
"I don't get offended when he wants to change something," Rodriguez says. "He's always thinking three innings ahead. I say 'Skip, I'm trying to learn all this.' As a young man learning, you can't have a better teacher. He tells you what he's doing. He doesn't give you a ton of education at once, but he gives you just enough so you can handle it."
Of course, these days any new or old lessons would be immediately amended if it meant the Nationals could score more runs. Tom McCraw, the team's hitting coach, shrugs when he talks about the ideal batting order because it's something Washington does not have. Ever since they gave up on Endy Chavez in spring training, the Nats have been looking for the perfect leadoff hitter, someone with speed who can get on base. Robinson has reluctantly used his star second baseman Jose Vidro in the No. 2 hole because he doesn't have anyone else. And despite the pleadings of many who remember currently injured first baseman Nick Johnson as a solid No. 2 hitter with the Yankees, Robinson has resisted the urge to use Johnson in the same role, figuring him too important a run producer to bat him so high in the order.
For McCraw, the ideal lineup is Florida's, with the skittering center fielder Juan Pierre leading off, the consistent Luis Castillo batting second, Miguel Cabrera and his .350 average and 23 home runs hitting third, followed by Carlos Delgado, the perfect No. 4 hitter.
He sighs because the Nationals' lineup is nothing like the Marlins'.
Robinson doesn't want to hear about it.
"I don't like to waste my time thinking about what I don't have," Robinson says.
So instead they try to make do with what is here, with what Rodriguez faithfully pieces together each day.