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Frank Says Goodbye

October 3, 2006

By Craig Heist


(Sabina Moran/PressBox)
I spent the last four days of the baseball season watching and listening to now ex-Nationals manager Frank Robinson talk about the game he loves, the players he has managed and the way he respects baseball and has always tried to give back to the game. I couldn't help but think back to my childhood playing pick-up baseball games in the summer at Kenwood High School.

You see, when Robinson was leading the Orioles to four World Series appearances in six years, he was my favorite player.

Don't get me wrong, I loved Brooks Robinson, but it was Frank Robinson who made the difference on those clubs. He hit home runs, he drove in runs, and he made everyone around him better.

As a kid I imitated Robinson's batting stance in neighborhood pick-up games. I caught fly balls like he did and even threw side arm. I imitated his jog around the bases. I tried to do everything like No. 20.

That's why emotions ran high for me last weekend.










(Photos courtesy of Sports Legends)
As a reporter, I've had the chance to cover Robinson twice, once with the Orioles from 1988-1991 and the past two seasons with the Nats.

I was there each time he was fired. In 1991, I was on the field at Memorial Stadium when then O's PR guy Rick Vaughn came out of the dugout and told Robinson "they" wanted to talk to him inside. As Robinson passed by me he looked, smiled and gave me the "throat slashing" gesture.

He knew then just as he knew this time.

Robinson met with both team president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden separately last Thursday. While no official announcement was made that day, Robinson all but told reporters that he had been fired.

"I'm at ease," Robinson said. "No pressure."

When told he looked sad, Robinson said, "Well then it's time to go. Nah, I just got a bad call from the umpires, and they didn't want to reverse it. Just kidding."

Robinson had a chance to say goodbye to the fans over the weekend, something that wouldn't have happened had Kasten and Bowden not made the right decision to tell the manager of his fate before the season ended, rather than waiting until sometime this week.

"I had my discussions with each one of them, and I am very comfortable that I got to say what I wanted to about the situation here," Robinson said.

"Other than that, I don't want to go into detail about what I said behind closed doors to either one of them."

Saturday, with Bowden and Robinson sitting before the microphones, the Nationals finally made it official, and Robinson had a chance to reflect on a career that has spanned 51 years -- 21 years as a player, 16 as a manager, and 14 more as a coach and executive.

"It's been a good ride for me," Robinson said. "51 years, and you know the old saying, 'when you take a manager's job and you stay long enough, you are going to get fired.' It's been a great run for me, and I mean that sincerely."

***

Robinson's career speaks for itself.

He was the only player to win the MVP award in both leagues. He ranks sixth on the all-time home run list with 586 dingers. He won the Triple Crown in 1966. He played in five World Series, winning two with the Orioles (1966 and 1970). He became Major League Baseball's first African-American manager with the Indians on October 4, 1974.

It was in this area where Robinson had his most success as a player and one very memorable year, the "Why Not" year of 1989, as manager of the Orioles. He is loved by fans up and down the Parkway.

"I don't know if I am aware of all that I mean to the fans," Robinson said. "They have certainly let me know in their own way by the support they have given this team for two years. There was a lot of enthusiasm mixed up in it. We drew off the energy of the fans here, and they made it possible for us to go out here and compete. 

"It's not just them being here at the ballpark but out in public. You know, the beautiful thing about it is if we were on a bad streak and you were out to the store or something like that, you were still warmly received. That makes a big difference when you can go out to the ballpark and you are still embraced by the fans and the public."

Many people wonder whether a man who has spent more than five decades in the game can actually go home.

"Unless Barbara has changed the locks on the door, yeah, I can go home," Robinson said laughing.

***

The Nationals had a "Thanks Frank" day Sunday. The day was filled with emotion as Robinson talked to the fans for about 10 minutes standing next to his wife Barbara and daughter Nichelle. While Robinson said he wasn't retiring, he knows he has managed his last game in uniform.

"As far as I'm concerned, in my heart and my head, as far as managing, this is it," he said. "Plain and simple."

There will be talks this week between Robinson and management about a position within the Nationals organization. Whether it is working in the community, going to take a look at a player, or giving advice, there is nothing Robinson hasn't seen in his 51 years in the game. The Nationals would be wise to try and benefit from his knowledge.

What I will miss the most about not having Frank around is being able to go into his office before a game and just sit there and talk baseball -- the stories, the strategies, and just things in general. He's a big NBA fan, and it was fun in spring training to give him grief about his Lakers. He cared if something was bothering you and wanted to know about it. Then there was the stare. The last thing you wanted was to earn the "Frank stare."

Like I did as a kid, when it comes time for me to step aside, I hope I can imitate Robinson and do it with the same dignity and class.

Issue 1.24: October 5, 2006