Frank Robinson will return to manage the Washington Nationals in 2006, albeit under yet another one-year contract and with a significantly altered coaching staff.
The Nationals and Robinson formally agreed to terms yesterday on a contract, believed to be worth $650,000, that will keep the veteran manager in the dugout for his fifth season with the organization.
The 70-year-old's return had been expected for some time now, but general manager Jim Bowden said he was hoping to wait until new ownership was named before making the decision. Once it became obvious that wasn't going to happen for a while, he decided to start negotiating with Robinson on a new contract.
The two sides met in Dallas last week during baseball's winter meetings and finalized the deal yesterday.
"We came to the point where a decision had to be made for us to go forward," Bowden said. "Frank had us in first place in the middle of July last year, and he had us in the pennant race with two weeks to go in September in a division where our payroll was significantly less than everybody else's. He and I have worked closely together, and we finally got it done today."
Thus ended more than two months of awkwardness, during which time Robinson sat in his Los Angeles home unsure whether he would be asked to return. The lengthy wait, Robinson acknowledged, was frustrating but unavoidable given the overall state of the organization.
"I often wondered why it was taking so long to either be offered to come back or for them to say they were waiting to see whether new ownership wanted me to come back," he said by phone yesterday. "Tell me something. I was looking for something in that respect. There was no response, but I kind of understood that under the circumstances."
In four seasons with the former Montreal Expos franchise, Robinson has posted a .485 winning percentage (314-334). All but his 2004 club finished .500 or better, including last year's 81-81 squad.
In 15 overall seasons as a major league manager with the Nationals/Expos, Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles, he is 994-1,085. With six more victories, he will become the 53rd manager in baseball history with 1,000 wins.
Robinson again will be working under a one-year contract, just as he has since being hired in 2002 by the Expos just days before the start of spring training. He said he was hoping to discuss the possibility of a long-term deal with Bowden, but it ultimately will be the new owner's decision whether to re-negotiate. Robinson, who will turn 71 in August, said he would like to manage another three seasons before retiring.
He will be working with a revamped coaching staff in 2006 after the Nationals announced yesterday that only pitching coach Randy St. Claire and bench coach Eddie Rodriguez have been retained. Hitting coach Tom McCraw, first-base coach Don Buford, third-base coach Dave Huppert, bullpen coach Bob Natal and roving coach Jack Voigt all were fired.
Changes had been rumored for some time, especially when it came to McCraw, Buford and Huppert, who often were criticized privately by club officials last season.
McCraw, 65, has long been one of Robinson's closest confidants, but the franchise had the National League's least-productive offense for the second consecutive season, and upper management felt it was time to make a change.
"I understand after doing this for so long that you're not going to help everyone," said McCraw, who may remain with the club in another role. "You strive to, but in my 35 years as a hitting instructor, you're always going to have some guys who don't perform to the level that you expect. Unfortunately for us, this year it was some key guys."
Buford, 68, also has long-standing ties to Robinson, but some in the organization felt he was no longer physically up to the daily rigors of the job. Huppert, 48, was in his first season as a major league third-base coach and at times struggled to learn his new job on the fly.
Natal, 40, spent four seasons as the Nationals' bullpen coach and catching instructor. Voigt, 39, spent one year with the organization as an on-field instructor before games and as a scout from the press box during games. The club has decided to eliminate his position.
Robinson said he fought to retain every member of his staff but accepted Bowden's authority to make the final decision.
"I thought they did a tremendous job for me. They were good baseball people, and they were hard-working," Robinson said. "I guess after what happened during the second half of the season, somebody had to take the blame. I thought that was very unfair for them to have to take the hit for the way the ballclub finished."
Bowden said he -- in conjunction with Robinson -- immediately will begin the search to fill the four coaching vacancies. He would not reveal the names of any candidates, but a club source said it's unlikely anyone will be promoted from within the organization.
"I'd like to say that I can pick my own staff, but I don't know if that's going to be possible," Robinson said. "The main thing is to get people in here that are good baseball people, that are good teachers and that will be able to get along with players and get their point across."