- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2006

At the end, as always, Frank Robinson was a pro.

On possibly the penultimate day of his 51 years in major league baseball, he met with the media yesterday in the bowels of RFK Stadium and acknowledged what had been public knowledge for 48 hours: His tenure as the first manager of the Washington Nationals was going, going, gone.

F. Robby said all the right things, of course: “I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

“It’s been a great run for me.”

“My legacy? I haven’t given it any thought.”

Robinson showed no emotion, although conceding that “one of these days, it may all [explode].” He even cracked a little joke about returning to California and finding that his wife, Barbara, had changed all the locks.

At Robinson’s left sat general manager Jim Bowden, who also said all the right things. Club president Stan Kasten, the other presumed culprit in Robinson’s dismissal, was nowhere to be seen. The ominous word “fired” escaped nobody’s lips.

Nonetheless, it was perhaps the most poignant moment in the Nationals’ first two years — and you’d have to say the date seemed most appropriate for leave-takings. As free-lance sportswriter Mark Jacobs noted, the expansion Senators played their final game and disappeared toward Texas on Sept. 30, 1971.

Now the new Nats were casting aside a baseball icon, and guess what? Win or lose next season and beyond, they’re going to miss Frank Robinson.

Never mind that his career record for 16 seasons as a manager is below .500 (1,065-1175 with one lonesome game left this afternoon.

Never mind that he can be a curmudgeon at times (as well as a funnyman at others).

Never mind that he is 71 years old and presumably as out of touch with today’s hip-hop, feel-good generation as any other person born during the Great Depression.

Never mind that he sometimes looks as if he might be in danger of nodding off while leaning on the dugout railing during games. A last-place ballclub can do that to you.

There’s one huge reason why we’re going to miss Frank Robinson, and it’s called class.

On second thought, make that two huge reasons. The other one is called pride. Every day during his half-century in baseball, both qualities flowed from every pore, if you’ll pardon a mixed metaphor. Sometimes he seems almost a relic from the days when major league stars had never heard of steroids, were tied to one ballclub until it deemed them expendable and earned perhaps $75,000 a year tops.

As a player, Robinson was a winner — one who bashed 586 home runs, led his Cincinnati and Baltimore teams to five pennants, was MVP in both leagues, became the major leagues’ first black manager with Cleveland in 1975 and gained first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame.

As a skipper, he might not be a winner statistically, but his teams always played hard and to the limits of their collective ability. This was very evident over the last month, when his Nats went all-out all the time with absolutely nothing at stake.

When Major League Baseball bought the sad-sack Montreal Expos, Robinson agreed to leave his suit-and-tie job as its director of discipline and put on a uniform again. He spent five seasons managing the Expos/Nationals, and in three of them his talent-poor teams played far above their heads. The Expos were 83-79 in both 2002 and 2003; the Nats went 81-81 last year after a totally inexplicable but lovely 50-31 first half.

For the last two years, moreover, Robinson has been the public face of the Nats — not hard on a mostly faceless team. This season Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Zimmerman have usurped some of the attention, bur Robinson was always there and ready to go to battle for his troops, gray hair and aching joints notwithstanding.

Remember last summer’s skirmish with Angels manager Mike Scioscia and Robinson’s incredulous comment afterward: “He tried to intimidate me, and I’m the intimidator”?

Even as recently as Thursday, when he tearfully all but admitted that Kasten and Bowden had pointed him toward the door, Frank’s feistiness showed through. After a foolish reporter asked whether Robinson was “scared” of Phillies slugger Ryan Howard, the lame duck manager, replied, “Nothing scares me. Nothing scares me. When I’ve been in the batter’s box with my head hanging over the plate and facing Bob Gibson …”

Robinson was smiling as he said this, but his meaning was clear. Nothing, indeed, scares him. Or if anything in baseball has, he did a marvelous job of hiding the fact.

Imagine how much a prize prospect like Zimmerman could have and did benefit from that kind of attitude. Don’t let anybody or anything in baseball intimidate you. So the bases are loaded, the game is tied in the bottom of the ninth and Pedro Martinez or Roy Oswalt has you down in the count 0-and-2. You just know — know you’re gonna get the job done.

That’s how Frank Robinson used to play and how Ryan Zimmerman plays now. It’s probably not a coincidence.

“Frank hasn’t told me anything specific — he just lets me play my game and doesn’t put any pressure on me when I made a mistake,” the 22-year-old third baseman said last week. “It’s up to you to get the job done, but …”

But it helps when your manager has done the job and knows what’s involved.

With Kasten, Bowden and assistant GM Bob Boone on the premises, it seems unlikely that Robinson will remain with the club in an executive capacity although the Lerners certainly recognize and respect his stature in the game. So today’s undoubtedly emotional tribute at RFK Stadium looks like a case of hail and farewell.

We don’t know who the Nats’ manager will be next season — I’d put my money on Joe Girardi if he is fired by the Marlins as expected — but the man will start with one considerable handicap, at least in the prestige department.

He won’t be Frank Robinson, and that’s too bad.

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