Before he was inducted into the Nationals Ring of Honor Saturday, the first manager of these Washington Nationals went to find the only relics of his managerial tenure here — Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond.
“What’s all these errors?” he asked Desmond, whom he met in spring training in 2005. A rough patch, Desmond told him. Gone now.
Desmond wears No. 20, Robinson’s old number, to honor him. A little while later, with that number on his back, the Nationals shortstop crouched behind home plate to catch Robinson’s first pitch. It bounced in the dirt, but Desmond picked it cleanly. Then he headed to the mound for a hug.
That first pitch, an interview on the scoreboard and a presentation were among pregame ceremonies honoring Robinson Saturday. The Nationals added his name to their Ring of Honor, a list of greats that wraps around the front of the stands behind home plate. Players’ tributes to Robinson aired on the scoreboard. Saturday was the first time the Nationals honored Robinson since he left the Nationals in 2006.
“It’s important to me because it makes me feel, I guess, not important but wanted a little bit,” Robinson said. “Appreciated. I always have a special place in my heart for this team. I still watch it.”
Robinson managed the Expos/Nationals from 2002-2006, the last stop in a four-part managerial career that included the Indians, Giants and Orioles. When he was named player-manager of the Indians in 1975, he became the first African-American to manage a Major League Baseball team.
Nationals manager Matt Williams, hardly prone to gushing, described Robinson like this: “Five tool player. Great ambassador. Wonderful manager, here as well as other places. Supportive.”
Williams says he knows Robinson from his Giants days, and has known him “a long time,” though the two don’t talk about managing.
“All I know is the respect he gets from the people who have played the game,” Williams said. “Our guys certainly know who Frank Robinson is. I think that’s a testament to his longevity. Even guys who weren’t necessarily born yet when it was all over for him. They know that. I think that’s the ultimate compliment.”
Robinson remembered the first months in Nationals history, spring and early summer of 2005 when the Nationals climbed to 19 games above .500 in early July and fostered improbable playoff hopes.
“That first, from day one until the all-star break was over, it was exciting times here. It was just like a magical thing that was happening for this ballclub,” Robinson said.
“The only thing I regret is we were not able to finish. I would have loved to have finished it off for the fans here and the organization, and it didn’t happen, but I’m very proud of that team.”
Asked about the organization’s minor league system in those days, Robinson responded, “What minor league system?”
“We didn’t really have one,” he said. “We had to play with the hand that was dealt us for the season, and then when we needed a replacement or something for an injury, we would have to go out and try to find it somewhere in a trade or whatever. Here now, it’s the lifeline of a winning organization, the minor league system, and they’ve done a great job here with the minor league system in a a very short amount of time.”
Robinson now works in Major League Baseball’s front office as the Executive Vice President of Baseball Development. He lauded former commissioner Bud Selig’s efforts, and says he believes new commissioner Rob Manfred will “be a great commissioner.” From that position, he has seen the extent of the Nationals growth into a championship contender.
“It didn’t come quickly, it wasn’t a fast fix, but the organization itself has been evolving year in and year out. They’ve been getting better each year. Ownership is very good here and backs the team and puts the best players they can on the field, not just free agency, but the minor league system. I think that’s the biggest thing here,” Robinson said. “…That’s what makes a consistent winner, and they’re right there now. They’re there. It’s only a matter of time. In the next few years, if not this year, you’ll see a World Series flag flying from the flagpole in center field.”
Robinson stood with Desmond and the Lerner family as the Nationals uncovered his name, his legacy honored in gifts the team gave him, and in Desmond’s jersey. Robinson never managed at Nationals Park, but his legacy is now officially honored there, just behind home plate — his name, next to a Curly W.