- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

Frank Robinson was managing the Baltimore Orioles one day in 1990 when a Washington sports columnist who shall not go unnamed approached him for an interview.

“Hi, Frank,” I said innocently. “I’m Dick Heller …”

F. Robby attacked this apparent straight line like a fastball down the middle: “That’s your problem.”

There was no possible reply until Robinson added kindly, “What do you need?”

Whatever it was, Frank cooperated, and we went our separate ways. But that bit of whimsy came to mind this week when Robinson agreed — probably against his will — to manage the spanking new Washington Nationals next season.

Putting it simply, the Nats got the best guy possible, at least this side of Davey Johnson. Robinson’s baseball smarts and highly competitive nature will be major assets during what is sure to be an intense love affair between the city and its new ballclub. Considering the team lost 95 games in its final season as the Montreal Expos, that sense of humor might come in handy, too.

Reports this week have mentioned that Robinson hit back-to-back grand slams at RFK Stadium in 1970 against the expansion Washington Senators. What I remember more is his very first baseball appearance in D.C. when he suited up for the National League in the 1956 All-Star Game at Griffith Stadium.

Robinson was a 20-year-old phenom on his way to tying the major league rookie record for home runs — 38 by Wally Berger for the 1930 Boston Braves — and delighted to be on the same field with people like Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Willie Mays. I was just a teenager writing high school sports for the old Washington Daily News, but Frank seemed grateful that even a kid journalist would notice him among his illustrious peers.

He offered no snappy rejoinders that afternoon, just quiet thanks for the interview. He didn’t do much in the game, striking out against Billy Pierce in the first inning and Whitey Ford in the third before being replaced, but there would be 13 other All-Star Games in which he swung the bat with deadlier effect.

Somewhere between that day and 1961, when he led the Cincinnati Reds to their first pennant in 21 years, Robinson became his own man — independent of spirit and fiery of disposition. When the Reds traded him to the Orioles in 1966 for the now-forgotten Milt Pappas, they famously called him “an old 30.” What they really meant was, he wouldn’t succumb to the wishes and whims of people who wanted to control his every move on and off the field.

As every Orioles fan knows, F. Robby joined legendary third baseman Brooks Robinson in powering the O’s to their first pennant. All Frank did was win the Triple Crown (.316 average, 49 home runs, 122 RBI) and become the only man to win MVP awards in both leagues.

In the World Series, the veteran Los Angeles Dodgers were heavy favorites behind Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. In the first inning of Game1 at Dodgers Stadium, F. Robby and B. Robby homered back-to-back off Drysdale for a 3-0 lead. The Dodgers, it turned out, wouldn’t total that many runs in all four games as the Orioles swept the Series.

When Robinson became the first black manager in the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians in 1975, no one was surprised — with the possible exception of activists who wondered why baseball had required a century to risk this daring social move. With the Indians and later the San Francisco Giants, he was an acceptable if not spectacular skipper.

After Edward Bennett Williams brought him back to the Orioles as a coach in 1985, everyone assumed Robinson was a manager in waiting until EBW found an excuse to sack Joe Altobelli. That proved a bum guess, because EBW’s blarney and bankroll lured Earl Weaver out of retirement for an ill-fated second term. Then Cal Ripken Sr., long a laborer in Orioles vineyards, got a crack at the job.

When the Orioles lost their first six games in 1988 and Ripken was fired, Robinson finally got his chance. We can only assume what pangs he suffered as this inept team also lost its next 15 games on its way to a 54-107 season, but as always Robinson persevered. The next season, he kept an equally nondescript club in the pennant race until the final weekend, finishing 87-75 and becoming American League manager of the year.

Robinson’s feat in bringing the unwanted Expos home a winner at 83-79 in 2002 and 2003 rates equal applause. Somehow his intensity seems to pervade the psyches of his troops, inspiring them onward and upward. This will be valuable in Washington as the Nats struggle and straggle toward respectability.

One more thing about Robinson: He loves the game. A former executive with the Orioles and Major League Baseball, he surely would prefer, in his 70th year, to be wearing a three-piece suit rather than a baseball uniform. But as always, he will do what the situation and his personal code require.

Frank Robinson, you see, demands and deserves the same respect he gives others. When I approach him next season, he might toss off another seemingly deprecatory one-liner, but he won’t mean it … I don’t think.

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