- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

The other night in Toronto, frustrated Frank Robinson beseeched each member of his free-falling Washington Nationals to “do some soul-searching” for the reason why the Nats have been playing more like Gnats of late.

Far be it from me to offer advice to a Hall of Famer, but …

Hey, Frank, they just ain’t good enough.

Following this heartrending postgame plea to the troops after the club’s 12th loss in 15 games, Robinson told reporters, “I got to go home and look in the mirror.” When he does, he’ll see a wrinkled, gray-haired 70-year-old who either is sick of this whole managing business or ought to be.

The man is a certified baseball legend who bashed 586 home runs in his 21-year playing career, led the Baltimore Orioles to their first pennant in 1966 as American League MVP and became the major leagues’ first black manager in 1975 with the Cleveland Indians.

Much more recently, he rode to the rescue of Major League Baseball by leaving a comfortable front-office job to toil as manager of the Montreal Expos after MLB bought the club — and booted the Expos cum Nationals to respectability in three of the next four seasons.

Robinson has been there, done that, seen it all. At three score and 10, he needs the Nats like Ted Kennedy needs another drink. So why is he out there night after night, crouching over dugout railings and looking morose as his little ballclub that couldn’t blows another ballgame?

There are two answers: pride and competitiveness. Guys who have played for Robinson will speak to his effectiveness at booting backsides, literally or figuratively, by way of motivating his players.

But sometimes the talent just isn’t there, as with the 2006 Nats.

In some cities, such as New York in the early 1960s, fans embraced bad clubs that tried hard. The classic example, of course, is the 1962 expansion Mets, of whom manager Casey Stengel inquired, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” (The answer was no, as emphatically attested by the Metsies’ 120 losses.)

In 16 seasons as a manager, Robinson has never won a pennant. But he has kicked some teams from mediocrity to contention — most notably the 1989 Orioles, who stayed in the AL East race until the final weekend after losing 107 games the previous year, and the 2005 Nats, who led the NL East with a 50-31 record at the halfway point.

But this kind of magic rarely carries over. The 1990 O’s skidded to 76-85, and the current Nats would be fortunate, if not happy, to do even that well.

According to the eminent Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Blessed be those who have no talent.” A dissenting vote subsequently was cast by the eminent Joe Kuhel, who upon being dismissed as manager of the last-place Washington Senators in 1949, complained, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers,” or something like that.

Ideally, athletes should be self-starters. Methods vary from sport to sport. For example, many football players get themselves “up,” sans chemicals, by banging their heads against walls, shoving one another and thinking mean thoughts. In baseball, though, the trick is not to get too excited. The name of this motivational game is to remain on an even emotional keel because combat ensues every day rather than once a week.

So Robinson was entirely correct to demand that the Nats, after proper reflection, need to “come out here and bring that [presumably reinforced] energy and approach to the ballpark for nine innings.” And perhaps such dedication would produce a few more victories in what is looking like a wasted season, although they responded to Robinson’s request by losing their next three games.

It’s highly debatable, after all, whether true grit can help a batter hit a Roger Clemens fastball or a pitcher blow one past Albert Pujols. These Nats simply do not have the ability and depth to compete with the best teams. Now it’s up to the Lerners, club president Stan Kasten and re-upped general manager Jim Bowden to do something about it.

Meanwhile, what of Frank Robinson? I suspect he’ll suffer through the rest of this season and then return to some executive capacity, hopefully in a substantive position with the Nationals. F. Robby has paid his dues, and then some, but he still has much to offer this sport and this franchise.

For the time being, though, he’ll have to keep trying to extract the best from a bunch of ballplayers who couldn’t have carried his, er, underwear when he played. Good luck, Frank.

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