- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

DENVER — Frank Robinson has attended plenty of retirement ceremonies during his 51 years in major league baseball. There were teammates, managers, contemporaries, men who played for and against him.

Somewhere along the way, something occurred to Robinson. In all his time in this game, he has never had a farewell of his own — an on-field tribute with speeches and special guests and one last tip of his cap to an adoring crowd.

There’s legitimate reason for that. The only time Robinson has ever formally retired from anything came in 1976, when he ended his playing career with the Cleveland Indians. The problem: He was still managing the team at the time, so it wasn’t like the Indians could throw him a big send-off party.

So as his 51st (and perhaps final) season in the major leagues draws closer to its conclusion, Robinson has begun thinking about how he would like to ride off into the sunset. He would like a retirement ceremony of his own, and he would like it to take place in Washington.

“Yes, I would,” the 71-year-old Nationals manager said this week in his office at RFK Stadium. “I’ve never had anything like some players get. And I think it would mean more for me here because it’s near Baltimore. I think the fans understand what I did there, and there are Orioles fans who have become Nationals fans and appreciate what I did. I just think I would like to say goodbye to them.”

Of course, if Robinson has his way, he won’t be saying goodbye for another two, three or even four years. He strongly desires to keep managing the Nationals, hoping he eventually can lead this franchise to the postseason after five seasons of mediocrity in Montreal and the District.

Robinson, though, does not control his fate. His contract expires at the end of the season, and he has had no discussions with the Nationals about returning in 2007. General manager Jim Bowden, team president Stan Kasten and members of the Lerner family know Robinson wants to come back but have made no decision about his status.

Time is running out. Washington played its 140th game of the season last night, facing the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. There are a little more than three weeks to go, and Robinson is ready for an answer.

“I’d like to know,” he said. “I’m under the assumption that something will be told to me before the season is over. I think I deserve that.”

Kasten reiterated yesterday he will not discuss Robinson’s status — or the club’s timetable for making a decision — publicly. He did say that Bowden is primarily responsible for determining the manager’s fate, though he acknowledged he will have some input.

“All decisions regarding baseball are the responsibility of the GM,” Kasten said by phone from Washington. “Surely there will be, as on every decision like trades and contract negotiations, consultation with everyone else. But the GM has to be the one who makes the final call on that kind of baseball decision.”

Bowden did not return a phone call yesterday.

If this is Robinson’s final season, it will not be remembered fondly by most. On the heels of their surprising pennant chase in 2005, this year’s Nationals stumbled right out of the gate and have never righted themselves. They entered play last night with a 61-78 record — worst in the division and third worst in the National League.

Robinson is hardly to blame for his club’s troubles. Offseason defections and early season injuries decimated his pitching staff. MLB’s delay in selling the club to the Lerners prevented the organization from having the resources to fix both the watered-down major league roster and the barren farm system.

But Robinson must bear some responsibility for the Nationals’ lack of success. He has never been considered among the game’s best skippers — a recent players poll conducted by Sports Illustrated named him baseball’s “worst manager” — and he admits he could have done a better job keeping his clubhouse in line.

“I’ve had more problems this year dealing with off-field stuff than I’ve ever had in the years I’ve managed,” he said. “You want to come to the ballpark and focus on getting the players ready for the game rather than talking to two or three players about something that has nothing to do with the game itself. It takes its toll on you.”

On the field, Robinson is headed for his ninth sub-.500 record in 16 seasons as a manager. He still has never made the postseason, a fact he insists doesn’t eat at him.

“No, I’ve come to terms with the personnel that I’ve had,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever started a season with the personnel I needed to win. … I’ve never been blessed with a team that people said: ‘They have a real chance to win.’ I’d like to have that opportunity. And maybe I could have it here in the next two or three years.”

Robinson feels he has been a good soldier through the franchise’s difficult transition period, from MLB’s takeover in Montreal to the relocation to Washington to the eventual sale to the Lerners. Originally hired by commissioner Bud Selig, he knows his fate is now in the hands of people who merely inherited him upon taking control of the club.

“I knew it was going to come to this at some point,” he said. “These people know what the situation has been. They know what I’ve done here. Jim knows. Stan knows. I’m sure the Lerners have been told what I’ve done. But that doesn’t mean anything, and it shouldn’t. Because if they don’t feel like I can do the job and they make a decision, I can respect that.”

And if Robinson is not asked back, then what? At 71, he’s not likely to be given another chance to manage elsewhere. But he’s still got his health and his competitive drive, and he’s not ready to leave the sport. One possible compromise would have the Nationals offering Robinson a front-office position, something he said he would consider under the right circumstances.

“If they do not want me to manage here next year and they want to talk to me about another position here, I would listen,” he said. “If someone else wanted to talk to me about that type of position someplace else, I would listen. I would really like to be here, to be a part of this organization. But I want them to want me, and I want them to give me [a position] with meaning to it.”

If not, Robinson said he would retire and return home to Los Angeles and his family — wife Barbra and daughter Nichelle. For the first time in more than five decades, he no longer would participate actively in the game that has defined his life.

And Robinson would be OK with that. He said he could come to grips with retirement — eventually.

“I could learn to be content,” he said. “It’s an adjustment period. All these years in the game, your life is structured. Going back into normal society, you’d have to be, sort-of ‘deprogrammed.’ It would take a while.”

If this is it, if a lifetime of service is down to its final three weeks, Robinson would like to savor it. His ballclub has helped make this an enjoyable September so far, winning six of its last seven entering this weekend’s series against the Rockies and doing so in exciting fashion.

All that’s left is the final exit: a farewell tour that ends at RFK on Oct. 1, with baseball fans getting a chance to say thanks to Frank Robinson before he takes off that uniform for the last time and begins his retirement years as an everyday citizen.

“That would be kind of nice,” he said. “That would be kind of a way to put a ribbon on my career in uniform. It would make it a little easier to become ‘deprogrammed.’”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page.

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