- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — He was a good soldier for three years, agreeing to take on a seemingly impossible mission — managing the vagabond Montreal Expos — at the behest of Major League Baseball.

Now Frank Robinson wants to reap the benefits of his hard work.

In his fourth season with the relocated Washington Nationals, the 69-year-old Hall-of-Fame player would like nothing more than to be back for a fifth season, a sixth season, a seventh … well, you get the picture.

“If I go out here and I do the job, hopefully, there will be enough to influence them to keep me,” he said yesterday before the Nationals’ exhibition game against the Houston Astros. “If I’m not doing the job, I can’t expect to be kept on.”

When Robinson first signed on to manage the MLB-owned Expos in 2002, he assumed his stint would last one year. But when the club avoided its presumed fate of contraction, then made back-to-back runs at the National League wild card, Robinson found himself back at the helm each spring.

He signed on again this winter once the relocation of the franchise to Washington was completed, and now says he could see himself managing in the big leagues another five years.

Of course, Robinson’s future with the Nationals is as uncertain these days as the name of the club’s eventual new owner. Like team president Tony Tavares and general manager Jim Bowden, Robinson has no assurances he’ll be retained once the franchise is sold.

Ask the players who have been with Robinson since Day One in Montreal, and it’s clear they believe he has earned the chance to see this thing through to completion.

“Obviously you want to go out there and do your best for anyone, but for someone the caliber of Frank Robinson, you want to go even harder,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “He’s stuck up for us a lot. He’s spoken his mind and helped us out. Anytime you go to a new place, you want the people that helped you get here to stay here.”

Robinson’s career managerial record (913-1,004 in 14 seasons with the Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles and Expos) hardly lives up to his playing record. He never has won more than 87 games in a season, and he never has guided a team to the playoffs.

In his defense, though, Robinson never has been handed the reins to a team that was close to being ready to contend for a championship. Each time he has taken over someplace, he has had to try to create an atmosphere where failure is not acceptable and success is expected.

The first step, according to Robinson: Learn how to lose. Really.

“When I said that for the first time, people looked at me like I was crazy,” he said. “But you have to accept losses as a team. That’s how you create good chemistry in the clubhouse. Once they learn how to lose, then you can start understanding what it takes to win.”

Robinson took that approach with his first club in Montreal, a hodgepodge of young, untested players with a few veterans sprinkled in that was widely expected to lose 100-plus games.

They wound up finishing 83-79, hanging around the fringes of the wild-card race through the summer.

“We had the talent to win,” he said. “Not to win the National League East. But you never know. If you go out and play good fundamental baseball, you never know. We played that way the entire year, from the first to the last out. The last game, we were 19 games out, but they played like it was for a championship.”

Three years later, the renamed Nationals are much better positioned to realize success. Though still constrained by the lack of ownership, the club has an increased payroll, increased revenue and an energized fan base with lofty expectations.

Robinson tries to be more realistic. He knows his team still has a long way to go before it can claim to be on equal footing with the likes of the Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies.

But he also knows crazier things have happened, and he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t believe in his team.

“We will not approach the first game of the season against the Phillies like we don’t have a chance,” Robinson said. “In sports, we’ve seen miracles, the unexpected. It can happen. Nobody can sit here and say that we have no chance. We are the ones who make our own chances. Once the game starts, it’s up to us.”

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