- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2014


VIERA, Fla. — Everyone is applauding Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter for making an Orioles minor leaguer who didn’t know who Frank Robinson was write a report about the Hall of Famer.

I think it’s a great idea — so I am assigning the same lesson to the Lerner family. Let’s see a report about how important Frank Robinson was to the Washington Nationals franchise.

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It’s not the slam dunk that the kid in Orioles camp will have. After all, you describe a Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues, a Triple Crown winner and five pennants and two World Series championships — along with being the first black manager hired in baseball — and you got a dozen pages right off the top of your head.

It requires a little more thought, though, to realize how important Robinson‘s  presence was to the Nationals.

Washington Nationals baseball manager Frank Robinson, right, signs an autograph for Alex Fuoco, 12, from Palm Bay, Fla. during spring training, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2005, in Viera, Fla.(AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)
Washington Nationals baseball manager Frank Robinson, right, signs an autograph for Alex ... more >

You would think, though, that the owners who bought this franchise from Major League Baseball in 2006 for $465 million would have a clue about Robinson’s contributions, because you could make the case that there might not have been much of a franchise — if any — to buy if it wasn’t for Frank Robinson.

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Go back to 2002, when baseball pulled off an unprecedented, bizarre deal, swapping three franchises — the Boston Red Sox, the Florida Marlins and the Montreal Expos — resulting in Marlins owner John Henry joining former Orioles president Larry Lucchino in purchasing the Red Sox, and Expos owner Jeffrey Loria in turn buying the Marlins.

Major League Baseball took over the Expos from Loria, a deal that seemed to have little credibility for fans who had to believe that baseball — the other 29 owners, really — were going to allow this orphaned franchise to be nothing more than a joke.

Then baseball hired Frank Robinson to manage the team.

It was the presence of Robinson in Montreal running the team from 2002 through 2004 that gave the franchise whatever credibility it had. The baseball story in Montreal — particularly when the Expos competed for a wild card spot in 2002 — was Hall of Famer Frank Robinson managing the Montreal Expos, a diversion from the dysfunctional operation of pretending to have a team with 29 owners allowing that team to compete against their own.

Then this team — still owned by Major League Baseball, the enemy in Washington that refused to allow a team to come to the nation’s capital for 33 years — relocated the franchise to the District and had to sell a damaged, disillusioned and disenfranchised fan base on a new home team.

How did they do that? With Frank Robinson.

People flocked to a made-up town that no one heard of before — Viera, Fla. — in the spring of 2005 because of the curiosity of a new team back in town, because of the excitement of baseball returning to Washington — but also because a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players in the history of the game was the star of the team.

Robinson recognized this responsibility. The scene in spring training at nearly every workout before the exhibition game began was Robinson sitting on his golf cart, with a long line of people waiting for an autograph from one of the game’s greatest. And he obliged them.

He also managed to get this assembled group of veterans nearly out of time, fringe players just looking for work, and others who would cheat their way out of baseball, to battle for first place in the National League East in an antiquated RFK Stadium that had all the comforts for players of 1961. They collapsed at the end and wound up 81-81, but still an overachievement and the franchise’s best record until it won the NL East with a 98-64 record in 2012.

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