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Nats’ Robinson still going strong at 70

WashPost: Manager was written off as ‘old’ at 30, but proved he wasn’t done
Nationals manager Frank Robinson turns 70 on Wednesday.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Frank Robinson is bemused by some people's notion that he's on his last legs, just because they carry him with a hobble. He turns 70 today, an age when he could be occupying himself by drinking coffee and reminiscing. Instead, Robinson's bright-eyed look suggests that he is living entirely in the moment and it's a moment he doesn't want to end.

"If I had my druthers, I'd get a multiyear contract, for the next three years, and then that would be enough managing," Robinson said. "Then I would like a position in the front office of the organization with authority to make decisions. I want an area of responsibility, a significant one. I don't want a token job. I don't want to collect a check. If that's the case, I don't want to be involved.

"That's what I'd like. I'd like to manage this ballclub for three more years."

Robinson's life has been baseball. And as he told a Senate committee in April, "I don't think retirement is good for individuals." Whether the soon-to-be-named Washington Nationals owner believes Robinson is good for the team remains to be seen, but he is having the time of his life even if his hair is gray, his gait has slowed and the ferociousness with which he played the game is left to memory and museums devoted to heroic tales of the ancient and the dead.

In deciding whether to keep Robinson as manager, it might behoove the new owner to look beyond what he has done lately — keeping Washington surprisingly competitive all summer after producing two winning seasons out of three with the bizarrely handicapped Montreal Expos. The new owner might look back a little further to remember what happened when another of Robinson's employers thought his usefulness was behind him.

That was 1966, approximately yesterday in Robinson's mind.

Mention that year to him, and he responds as quickly as he used to swing a bat. Gruffly, sarcastically, he says: "That's when I was an 'old 30.' " Those were the words Robinson recalls Bill DeWitt Sr., then Cincinnati Reds owner, using as the reason for trading him to Baltimore. For a decade, the spindly yet powerful outfielder embodied the "Big Red Machine" years before the team ever took on that name. Over those 10 seasons with Cincinnati, he hit .303 and averaged 32 home runs and 101 RBI. He had been the National League rookie of the year in 1956, and the league's most valuable player in 1961, when the Reds won the pennant. In the season before the trade, he hit 33 home runs and drove in 113 runs, batting .296. Robinson thus was flabbergasted to learn — by a phone call in the middle of his dinner — that he suddenly had grown "old."

Old, eh?

The season of '66 belonged to Frank Robinson to a degree that established him as one of baseball's greatest players ever.

He hit 49 home runs, won the Triple Crown and was named the American League's MVP and the MVP of the World Series after the Orioles swept the Los Angeles Dodgers.

That year, 1966, of all his years in baseball, which includes 21 as a major league player and four managerial stints, best defines Robinson's very reason for being, which exists to this notable day in his life: to go all out in every game until opponents feel nothing but sorrow in their hearts, and to do it every day until he has done what he set out to do, winning all there is to win.

"What drove me all year long really was to show the people of Baltimore and the organization that they got a good player," Robinson said. "I knew I could still play. But Bill DeWitt made it sound like I couldn't play."

Robinson's crusade began in spring training.

"We had an intrasquad game," said former Orioles teammate Jim Palmer, now an Orioles broadcaster, "and we had a young kid named Steve Cosgrove. I mean, electric stuff, he had a curveball, right off the table. So he throws Frank as good a curveball as you can throw, and Frank gets his body out but keeps his bat back and hits a rocket down the left field line and hits the chalk in Miami Stadium, and I turned to [pitcher] Dick Hall and said, 'I think we just won the pennant.' " Robinson played every game the same way, as if there were no next game.

On Opening Day in Boston, he homered, as did Brooks Robinson. In the World Series opener, the two set the tone by hitting back-to-back home runs in the first inning against Don Drysdale.

But neither of those home runs by Frank Robinson was the most memorable he hit that season. That happened May 8, in the first inning of the second game of a Sunday afternoon doubleheader at Memorial Stadium. Cleveland was in town. Luis Tiant was on the mound for the Indians. With one on and one out, Robinson stepped to the plate.

"I had never seen Tiant before," he said. "The first pitch he threw to me was a fastball down and in. I swung, and I knew I hit it good. And it was a home run. I rounded the bases like I usually did — phew, phew, phew, no fooling around like these players do today — and went back to the dugout, and the players said, 'That ball went completely out of the ballpark.' I said, 'Oh, bull, get out of here.' I didn't really believe it until I went back out to the outfield at the end of the inning and 49,000 people stood up and gave me an ovation. I said, Wow, I guess it did."

The ball landed in the parking lot beyond the left field stands — the only ball ever hit out of Memorial Stadium.

"Four hundred and seventy-one [feet]," Robinson said, "but I think it went farther than that."

Similarly, he did the "little things," like sliding hard into middle infielders to break up double plays and always throwing to the correct base from his position in right field. Other players called him their teacher.

"He was a manager on the field," said Elrod Hendricks, Baltimore's bullpen coach and a former teammate of Robinson's. "When he played, the manager's job was cut in half. He never had to discipline any player because Frank took care of that, whether you were a rookie or a veteran. If he thought you weren't giving your all, he'd let you know.

"If you made a mistake on the field, he just chewed you out when he got back to the dugout. It made you angry that one of your teammates was snapping at you. But you look back and say, that was Frank Robinson. If he can't tell you what the heck to do, if he sees something you're not doing, who are you to tell him any different?"

In June 1967, Robinson injured himself doing one of the little things. As a result, he wasn't close to his former self physically until 1969, and had it not been for that one play, he likely would have topped 600 home runs and 3,000 hits for his career. (He had 586 and 2,943.).

Trying to break up a double play against the White Sox, he slid in at second base intending to upend Al Weis. But Robinson missed his target. Instead, Weis's knee struck him in the forehead, knocking him out. Weis also went sprawling. Eventually, the two were helped from the field by teammates, but Robinson would be troubled for some time by double vision.

"To this day I don't know how I missed him," Robinson said. "Never did it before and never did it afterward.

"I don't think I've ever been able to see perfectly after that. My eyesight wasn't as sharp after that. Seeing and reacting was never the same. At bat, I used to pride myself on being able to see a pitch, start the bat and then stop it. I could never do that again like I did. The ball itself was never as sharp, as in focus, as it used to be."

Still, he led the Orioles to pennants in 1969, '70 and '71 — and Brooks Robinson took care of the 1970 Series with his glove and bat.

"I learned something about Frank in spring training at Pompano Beach," former Washington Senators pitcher Jim Hannan said. "I threw a changeup to him and he hit the ball down the left field line. He hit it so hard I said to myself, 'It's going to go foul.' But it didn't. It went over the fence, over some bushes beyond the fence, over the parking lot and some school buses parked at the back of the lot, and then some palm trees behind the buses. I never, ever again threw him an off-speed pitch."

"Frank was the most intense ballplayer I've ever seen," said former Orioles manager Earl Weaver. "He played the game as hard as anybody. He never, ever gave up on an at-bat no matter what the score was. He'd get a big hit. He went into the stands in New York to make a catch. But what's important is, he did these things every day."

On this his 70th birthday, Robinson could be leading a life of leisure, celebrating in the sunshine of Southern California, where he lives in the offseason. But this is where he wants to be. His office is a cramped space amid a labyrinth of dank hallways beneath RFK Stadium's stands: golf clubs propped against a wall, newspapers stacked neatly on a corner of his desk. One day he was eating his favorite sandwich, baloney on white. He keeps the room dimly lit, giving it the feel of a bomb shelter.

Robinson hadn't planned to be in Washington. He accepted the offer to manage the Expos for one season after consulting, as he said he customarily does in times of change, with his wife, Barbara. (They have been married almost 44 years, and have two grown children.) "She always tells me, why do you ask for my advice when you know you're going to take the job?" Robinson said.

One season has turned into four seasons, he said, because he has enjoyed "the players and the effort that they've given me."

There's another reason he wants to keep his uniform: The game is ingrained in him.

He took to it in Oakland, where his mother relocated from Beaumont, Tex., a few years after he was born, the youngest of 10. At the time, Oakland was a baseball hotbed. Robinson played on a neighborhood field near his house on lower Myrtle Street in west Oakland, now a light industrial area. In his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1982, he recalled his days as a sandlot kid, even then sliding into second base, breaking up double plays. "That's the way baseball is supposed to be played," he informed his Cooperstown audience. The drawback was that he would rip his pants and scrape his left leg repeatedly, drawing blood.

"That field," he explained, "was covered by asphalt."

An Oakland man named George Powles, an employee of the city's recreation department and a teacher at Oakland's McClymonds High, would be a major influence on Robinson, who was only 8 when his father died.

Robinson used to ride his bicycle through the streets to north Oakland for games that Powles coached at Bushrod Park, a still-lovely swath of green with two ball diamonds at opposite ends.

"George Powles kept me out of trouble," Robinson said in his office. "He got me off the streets. He got me into organized games, and taught me the fundamentals of how to play the game, and I draw a lot from that today."

Robinson was only 14, younger than his teammates, when he played on Powles's 1950 American Legion baseball team, which won a national championship for a second straight year. More than 40 of Powles's protégés became professional athletes, among them outfielders Curt Flood and Vada Pinson, basketball's Bill Russell and football star John Brodie. (Robinson and Russell played basketball together on one of Powles's McClymonds High teams.)

"Powles was their mentor, and because many of his teams traveled, he also opened their eyes to the rest of the country," said Mark Medeiros, deputy director of the Oakland Museum of California, which is assembling an exhibit to honor Powles, who died in 1987.

Marjorie Brans, Powles's daughter, remembers Frank, who visited their home often for meals and baseball talk. "He was a skinny little kid with skinny legs," she said. "He was very shy."

Her description of Robinson as shy might come as news to many who have met him in his adult life and would consider him forbidding. Maybe it's his glare, or his reputation for toughness. As Hendricks said, he is hard to get to know but "a friend for life" if you do.

"That fierceness and aggression came in the minor leagues," Brans said of Robinson. "Black players had a hard time in the South, and he was in the South."

"I didn't know anything about racism or bigotry until I went into professional baseball in 1953," Robinson relates in his 1988 autobiography "Extra Innings." "Racial bigotry was far more blatant and pervasive in this country during those years of my youth than it is today."

Derogatory shouts from the stands, segregated housing and some white players' prejudices against black players hardened his personality. Disagreements with the Cincinnati front office also angered him. "At times I didn't think I was appreciated by management," he said. "This is what I always resented there. They didn't want to pay me. I always had to battle for my salary."

In 1968, Robinson met a man who helped settle him, Hiram Cuevas, who owned the Santurce team in the Puerto Rican winter league. Weaver was Santurce's manager, but when he took over the Orioles he had to give up the job. He helped Robinson succeed him. He did for several years, with the hope eventually of becoming a big league manager. Just as much, Robinson heeded Cuevas's advice to try harder to take things more in stride.

"He was a good baseball man, a very wise man, period," Robinson said. "He sat me down and talked to me about baseball and talked to me about me as a person, about life. It really helped me see myself as I was and see myself as other people saw me." And if that wasn't always in a favorable light, Robinson decided, "then I have to change."

Cuevas helped prepare him for the double dose of pressure that awaited him when he became the majors' first black manager, and a player-manager as well, with Cleveland in 1975. Robinson's record as a manager at Cleveland, San Francisco, Baltimore and Montreal/Washington is below .500, but twice he has been named league manager of the year, in 1982 with the Giants and 1989 with the Orioles.

"The more you manage, just like the more you play, you should be better," he said. "You learn things. You adjust things. You learn more about players. You learn how to handle a ballclub, how to manage a game, how to handle the press. You put things in the bank that you learn, you throw out some of the things that didn't work for you. I think I've gotten better each stop."

"I saw a great difference in him," Hendricks said of the Robinson who arrived back in Baltimore as manager in 1988. "He had gotten to a point where he could even talk to his pitchers. He hated pitchers."

One of Robinson's strengths as a manager was becoming evident: his effectiveness with his players one-on-one. Former Oriole Cal Ripken credits Robinson with helping him to think more clearly about his career while at the same time advising him on a more immediate problem, his hitting struggles.

"When you play for so long, you see it's going to come to an end and you wonder, Is your talent diminishing? Is it a slump?" Ripken said. "He took me aside and told me there was a time in his career when he thought he'd never get another hit. He's certainly one of the better hitting instructors I've ever been around. But psychologically, he started me in the right direction again."

As the Nationals manager, Robinson often roams the clubhouse, purposefully talking with players — even joking with a pitcher. "When are you going back to work?" he said to Chad Cordero, who hadn't had a save opportunity in a few days because the team had been trailing in the late innings.

Speaking of Cordero during one of his meetings with the media, which he holds before each game, Robinson said: "There's going to be another game tonight, and he's going to close it."

In fact, Cordero did.

Even during the Nationals' toughest times this season, Robinson has demonstrated the kind of optimism and patience that one-time great players have found difficult to summon as managers. Still, he will cast that glare of his, or a perplexed look, from the dugout during games, as if he would love to pick up a bat, dig in at the plate and get the job done himself — a drawback, to say the least, in being 70.

From his home in Florida, Weaver follows Robinson's fortunes and believes he knows what his former star needs most to reach his goals as a manager: It's a player who fits Weaver's very description of Frank Robinson in his prime. "You always knew about the sixth, seventh or eight inning," Weaver said, "that he was going to hit a two- or three-run homer."