If not for a second-half collapse back in 2005, playoff baseball might have returned to D.C. much sooner than Wednesday.
No one knows that better than Frank Robinson, the Hall of Famer who managed the franchise through the final three seasons in Montreal and the first two in Washington. The Lerner family invited him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the NLDS, and the occasion brought to mind those fleeting playoff hopes the Nats had seven years ago.
Robinson’s team took a 52-36 record into the All-Star break but stumbled to 29-45 down the stretch, finishing at 81-81.
“I would like to have done it,” Robinson said. “We thought we had a good chance of doing it in ‘05, the first year. We had a terrific first half and someone turned the switch off when we went to the break and a different team came back after the break. But it was fun the first half of the season.”
Wednesday afternoon, the 77-year-old celebrated his latest visit to D.C. by catching up with his old friend and former Orioles teammate Davey Johnson before the game. He followed up by delivering a pitch close enough to be called a strike by Ian Desmond, who switched to the No. 20 jersey this season to honor Robinson.
“He’s worn it well,” Robinson said of Desmond, who was in spring training as a minor leaguer when the Hall of Famer still managed the club.
Robinson said he was impressed with the Nationals for having the patience to assemble a winning team the way they did.
“They knew when we got here, new ownership and whatever, that they had to rebuild the minor league system and be patient with the young players and build from within,” he said. “That’s the way you build a winner and that’s the way you have a consistent winner. [General manager Mike] Rizzo and his staff have done a tremendous job rebuilding the minor league system and developing the young players and mixing in some veteran players, and the coaching staff has done an outstanding job.
“It came a little quicker than I thought it would, but after last year I felt good about this franchise having an opportunity to do something this year. If not, next year. So they came a year sooner.”
Though Robinson played for five franchises and managed two more, it seems D.C. remains special to him.
“The two years we spent here, especially the first half of the first year, it was great,” he said. “It was exciting, and it was good for the fans because people were saying that baseball wouldn’t go here with the Orioles just down the way.
“I told them they were wrong from the beginning when we were in Montreal and thinking about coming here. I said these are great baseball fans here, and you put a good product out there, they’ll come out and root for the team. It’s great to see that. Well-deserved.”