- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

Here’s what they told Frank Robinson back in February 2002 after Major League Baseball took unprecedented action and bought the Montreal Expos: Manage the club for just one season. Then, baseball will dissolve the franchise and say “au revoir,” by which they will mean “contraction,” and you will head back home to Los Angeles. Thanks for your help.

The idea appealed to Robinson, who became baseball’s first black manager in 1975 with Cleveland and later managed the San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles job ended 37 games into the 1991 season, and over the next 11 years Robinson discovered he missed running a club.

“My batteries were charged up, my health was good and I was eager to get back into it,” he said. “I just felt like for one year, I could be the right person for the job.”

For one year.

Robinson said he was not prepared for a long-term commitment and would not have taken the job if he knew what would happen. But who knew? Not Robinson, not baseball. The plan went awry. Faced with legal challenges, MLB scrapped contraction — the Minnesota Twins also were to be eliminated — and held on to the Expos, granting a stay of execution. One year became two and then three, and in a few months, at age 69 (he turns 70 on Aug. 31), Robinson will start his fourth season, except now he is the manager of the Washington Nationals.

A funny thing happened on the way to RFK Stadium, the Nationals’ ballpark until a new one is built. Once it became clear the Expos would stick around and wait for a new home, Robinson believed he should, too. He liked the job and wanted to see what would happen.

“I’m excited about being part of it,” he said.

Said former Expos general manager Omar Minaya: “I think Frank gutted out the years in Montreal looking forward to managing in Washington.”

Robinson is anticipating something different and fun after his challenging, often difficult years in Montreal. Despite objections to a publicly financed stadium, which caused some anxious moments and threatened to kill the move to D.C., the area seems prepared to embrace the Nationals and the return of baseball after an absence of more than 33 years.

Even a hard-nosed, curmudgeonly Hall of Famer who hit, ran and played the outfield with a combative, no-nonsense intensity and who has managed the same way (for the most part) needs a hug sometimes.

“It’s always nice to be wanted,” Robinson said during a telephone interview this week. “I wish I could go from the holidays to the season, instead of going to spring training. When things were a little uncertain there, there was a bad feeling. I had gotten so excited about this move, and then all of a sudden you say, ‘Oh no, this might not happen.’ I’m not a politician, but I just feel the area deserves a team.”

How good this team will be remains to be seen, although the Nationals should be better than last year, when Montreal’s desolate Olympic Stadium was a more depressing place than ever. Continuing a story all-too-familiar with the franchise, Vladimir Guerrero, Orlando Cabrera and Javier Vazquez were traded or left via free agency because the Expos could not afford to keep them. The $43 million Opening Day payroll was among baseball’s lowest, and the club played 22 games in Puerto Rico, presumably to make money, for a second straight year.

It all caught up to the 2004 Expos, who went 67-95 following a pair of 83-79 seasons that defied all probability.

Minaya, who became GM of the New York Mets after the season, and team president Tony Tavares were hired by MLB along with Robinson to run the Expos and maintain order. By producing winning records in 2002 and 2003 despite low attendance, a marginal payroll and an uncertain future, they more than succeeded.

“We’ve operated under very difficult circumstances up to and including the games in Puerto Rico,” Tavares said. “We’ve played more road games than any team in baseball, and what ends up happening is that players start getting annoyed and down on the situation.

“One of the best things Frank did was take away the excuse-making. He had a meeting and said, ‘Let’s get all the bitching out of the way. Nothing you guys can say can change anything. Suck it up and let’s play.’”

That was always Robinson’s approach to the game. For all his glittering accomplishments during a 21-year career — including 586 home runs, 2,943 hits and a Triple Crown — Robinson was defined as much by his indomitable, competitive drive.

“One thing I know is what it takes to be a winner,” he said.

It’s a sports axiom that the best players make the worst managers and coaches because they cannot relate to nor understand less-talented athletes. Robinson has heard this theory applied to himself and strongly disputes it.

“Everyone says I wasn’t patient with lesser talented players,” Robinson said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Robinson has a career .476 winning percentage (913-1004), but he inherited some bad teams. At every stop, his club improved at some point. His best managing job probably occurred after he took over the Orioles six games into a season-opening 21-game losing streak that led to a 54-107 record in 1988. The next season, Baltimore went 87-75, and Robinson was named manager of the year.

Robinson always played as if he were one bad game away from being sent to the minors. He was aggressive and intimidating, and if he doesn’t demand exactly that from his players, he expects them “to play the game the right way.” Conveying this idea occasionally has fostered some resistance, especially when accompanied by a certain caustic edge. At times throughout his career as a player and manager, Robinson has not stressed diplomacy.

“Frank is very old school from the standpoint of how he sees the game being played,” Tavares said. “He wants a full effort. He wants your tank to be empty when you leave the field. He doesn’t want anybody taking at-bats off or not running out ground balls.”

When he joined the Expos, Robinson was working as baseball’s vice-president of on-field operations. Known as the “Dean of Discipline,” his primary job was doling out punishment for brawls and other unseemly behavior.

“Frank’s first year [with the Expos], not having done it in awhile, was tough for him,” Tavares said. “He was used to the ballplayers of old not requiring much motivation. Nobody had to tell anyone to run down the line. That first year, we had a ton of Hispanic players, there were some language barrier issues and some misinterpretation of what Frank was telling them. What Frank was saying to motivate them was sometimes interpreted as an insult. He had to make adjustments. … Which wasn’t easy to do.”

Last year, for example, Robinson would ask second baseman Jose Vidro, probably the best player who remained with the team, to help with the lineup whenever the Expos were in a hitting slump. Vidro made changes, and Robinson went along with them.

“I’ve learned to understand players more, listen to them more,” Robinson said. “I try to reason with them and give in to them and bend their way, as long as I feel it’s the right thing to do. I’ve learned — not to accept things — but deal with them better. They’re human beings, and they’re going to make mistakes.

“A lot of people don’t believe I’ve made that adjustment, but I have. I listen to the players more. I get more input on a daily basis. I try to do what I can to keep them happy, as long as it doesn’t go against what I believe.”

Robinson said he understands the difference between playing your best and trying your best. He has never asked a player to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.

“I had the talent,” he said. “But overall I had to work hard with my talent. People thought it came easily to me. It didn’t.”

In yet another example of how the baseball gods have a truly twisted sense of humor, Robinson might get his one-year managing deal after all and then be asked to leave. The new ownership, whoever it is, will call the shots. The futures of Tavares and interim general manager Jim Bowden are also up for grabs.

“I want to be a part of this,” Robinson said. “I want to be here with the players we’ve had and the players we’re adding. I feel we have some business to finish. Personally and maybe selfishly, I want to be part of this organization, even after I finish managing.”

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