- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Fifty years later, Frank Robinson still vividly remembers the details.

Opening Day, April 17, 1956. Crosley Field in Cincinnati. His hometown Reds against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Robinson, a 20-year-old outfielder, stepped up to the plate for the first time in his major league career. On the mound for the Cardinals: Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, a young left-hander who one day would become a congressman from North Carolina.

“Second pitch,” Robinson said. “Line drive off the center-field fence. Missed hitting a home run by a couple of feet. Double.”

Thus began one of the most remarkable careers in baseball history, one that’s still going strong 50 years later as manager of the Washington Nationals.

As he leaned back in his chair in the visiting manager’s office at Miami’s Dolphin Stadium, Robinson had a hard time grasping the significance of his golden anniversary in the big leagues. Though he will speak in great detail about his career if asked, he doesn’t often think back on it himself.

“When people tell me 50 years, all I can say is: Wow, that’s a long time,” he said. “I guess some of it is being in the right place at the right time, people believing in you.”

Perhaps, but it’s safe to say Robinson’s talent has had something to do with his longevity, too.

He was, after all, a Hall of Fame player, one of the best all-around ballplayers in history. He hit 586 home runs, which was fourth in the record books for decades behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. He was a 12-time All-Star, the only player to win MVP awards in both the National and American leagues and was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

And don’t forget about his managerial career. Though he never has guided a team to the postseason in 15 seasons, Robinson is two wins from becoming the 53rd manager to reach 1,000 victories.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit for the things he’s accomplished in this game,” said Nationals first-base coach Davey Lopes, a former player and manager himself. “Not just as a player but being the first African-American manager and so forth. From my standpoint, I’m deeply appreciative of the things he’s gone through to allow me the opportunity to get managerial jobs.”

If not for an incredibly patient Cincinnati Reds organization, Robinson’s time in the big leagues might not have even lasted one season, let alone 50.

After his impressive Opening Day debut in 1956 — he was 2-for-3 with an intentional walk in the Reds’ 4-2 loss to the Cardinals, then told reporters he didn’t think major league pitchers were any tougher than minor leaguers — Robinson immediately fell into a slump. Not just any slump, an 0-for-23 slump.

All of a sudden, people were questioning whether this overconfident 20-year-old really was ready for the show.

Baseball was a different sport 50 years ago, though. This season, when Nationals rookie outfielder Brandon Watson had just five hits in his first 28 at-bats, he was sent down to the minor leagues. When Robinson went 0-for-23, Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts simply sat his young player down and talked to him.

Tebbetts told Robinson he was going to take him out of the lineup for one day when Cincinnati played Brooklyn. While he sat on the bench, Tebbetts wanted Robinson to watch Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe and learn.

“I went back in the next day,” Robinson said, “and I was off and running.”

He wound up hitting .290 with 38 homers, 83 RBI and 122 runs scored, winning NL rookie of the year honors and establishing a reputation as one of the game’s fiercest competitors.

Robinson still carries that reputation today as a manager, though it’s perhaps become more legend than reality. Players, coaches and reporters who meet him for the first time often are intimidated by this 6-foot-1, 195-pound baseball icon.

At least until they actually get to know him.

“If you didn’t know any better, I don’t think you’d know he’s 70,” said rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has 49 years’ less experience than his manager. “He jokes around and is still young at heart. I love playing for him.”

Lopes, who is in his 35th season in the majors, knew Robinson only casually before joining his staff this winter and always figured him to be reserved, stoic, intense.

“Now I’m seeing a side of him I didn’t think he had, honestly,” Lopes said. “He’s a clown. I don’t think too many people would think that. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. He’s very personable. He hangs around with the guys and has fun. It’s just a side I’d never seen of him.”

Perhaps because he knows he’s approaching the end of his career, Robinson is trying to savor every moment now. Though he has said he would like to continue managing for another two or three seasons, he has no idea whether the Nationals’ eventual new owner will retain him.

So even when he his team was mired in a six-game losing streak last weekend, Robinson couldn’t help but try to keep things loose in the clubhouse. As outfielder Marlon Byrd was busy talking to someone else, Robinson sneaked up behind Byrd and stole a cookie out of his locker.

The grin on Robinson’s face said it all. It may be 50 years since he first set foot in a major league clubhouse, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still feel like a rookie.

“To be in this game, at the level that I’ve been at, for 50 years? I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “I’ve been lucky.”

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