LOVERRO: Time for Nats to give Frank Robinson his due

Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson adjusts his hat before the game against the Los Angeles Dodger in Vero Beach, Fla., Monday, March 28, 2005. (AP Photo/LM Otero)Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson adjusts his hat before the game against the Los Angeles Dodger in Vero Beach, Fla., Monday, March 28, 2005. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

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.


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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.

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.

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.

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.


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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.

When the Lerners bought the team in 2006, whatever existed at that point was due in part to Robinson.

And when he was fired at the end of the 2006 season, Robinson left them with words that should be etched in stone at Nationals Park:

“I’ve been very lucky, very fortunate and very appreciative of the opportunities that I’ve had to do the things that I enjoy doing. This is why I have always respected the game and tried to get others to appreciate and respect this game. This is the reason that I have wanted to stay in this game, because a lot of people helped me to get to where I am today and I’ve always tried to give back to this game. That’s what it is all about.

“Have I been hard on players? Yes, and I’ve been hard on them for a reason, and that was to try to get them to be the best they could possibly be. Set goals that are difficult to achieve, and when you achieve them you’ll know you really had an outstanding year.

“Don’t accept being OK or good in this game. Always strive to be the best that you possibly could be and take no less. If I didn’t feel like they were doing that, I was a little tough on them, yes, but for only that reason. Only that reason. I don’t think that is out of line. That’s just the way I am. Call me old school if you want to or whatever. I don’t think that is old school. I think that is the way it should be.

“The game is a great game, and if we respect it and do the right things for the game, that is what should be done. That is the way I have approached the game, and that is the way I always will. Old school. I have to laugh every time I hear that.”

That wasn’t just old school — that was old testament.

Put that in your book report, Ted Lerner — or just finally do the right thing and honor Frank Robinson at Nationals Park.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com

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