- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

The whole weekend — three days of tributes, tears and thanks for Frank Robinson — really could be boiled down to one, heartfelt sentence from the 71-year-old baseball giant to the assembled gathering at RFK Stadium before yesterday’s season finale.

“I’ve never done anything harder than I have to do right now,” the outgoing Washington Nationals manager said. “And that’s to say goodbye.”

Robinson said farewell to life in the major leagues, the only life he has known for 51 years, with something he experienced far too often during his managerial career: a loss. The Nationals dug themselves into an early hole against the New York Mets and could not rally to send their manager out in style, falling 6-2 before a crowd of 29,044 that was more interested in honoring Robinson than cheering on a victory.

There was plenty of love to go around. From the moment Robinson hinted Thursday that he had been fired after five seasons with the organization, little else mattered to Washington. While the Nationals (71-91) were getting swept by the division-champion Mets to finish 10 games worse than last season’s .500 mark, Robinson soaked in the adulation of his fans, his friends, his family and his players, culminating in yesterday’s finale.

A frustrating and at-times exhausting season for Robinson ended with a whirlwind of activities, too much for him to be able to spend time with everyone he hoped to meet. He arrived at the ballpark early in the morning, called various people into his office to chat, held a prolonged pre-game media session, spent more time meeting with players, signed autographs, enjoyed an on-field video tribute, gave a 10-minute speech to the crowd, managed the 2,241st game of his career, waved more to the crowd, spoke again to the press and accepted more handshakes and hugs than most men get in a lifetime.

“I’m numb right now,” he said about 15 minutes after closer Chad Cordero, getting a rare at-bat, struck out to end the game.

The highlight of the day was Robinson’s speech, in which he talked about his love of baseball, thanked all those who helped mold his Hall of Fame career and stated in no uncertain terms that he’s only retiring from managing, not baseball.

“There’s a lot of things I want to try to accomplish for others that are going to come after me,” he said. “There’s a lot of other things in baseball, I think, that can be done much more politically correct. I’m looking for opportunities for people that are qualified to fill positions in different organizations in baseball. I have a lot of work to do.”

As fans applauded at the conclusion of Robinson’s speech, the entire Mets roster approached him near home plate to offer congratulations. Nationals players and coaches followed suit, forming a circle around their manager and bouncing up and down as though they had just won on a ninth-inning home run.

“That just goes to show how respected Frank really is,” Cordero said. “Everybody loves the guy.”

Robinson teared up several times before the game even started. Once it did, he didn’t so much manage the game as savor every last moment in the dugout.

He made one trip to the mound, yanking ineffective starting pitcher Ramon Ortiz with only one out in the second inning. Otherwise, there wasn’t much managerial strategy necessary, aside from some calculated decisions to remove star position players such as Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Zimmerman and Jose Vidro in midgame so each could receive an ovation from the crowd.

“It was a very, very, very emotional day, for myself and the guys,” Vidro said. “And I am sure for him, too.”

Vidro and his teammates were officially told by Robinson on Saturday that this would be his final season as manager, two days after General Manager Jim Bowden and team President Stan Kasten informed Robinson of his fate. Truth be told, though, most Nationals observers sensed this was coming months ago, and Robinson himself had an inkling for some time.

So he had time to prepare himself for the inevitable, and that perhaps made it easier for him to embrace this last weekend, rather than sulk over it.

“I’m at ease,” he said Thursday.

It also helped that Robinson was showered with praise and love everywhere he turned the past few days. By the time he ducked under the dugout overhang for the final time late yesterday afternoon, his baseball career — 586 home runs, two Most Valuable Player awards, induction into the Hall of Fame, 16 seasons as manager and a world of memories — felt complete.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said, choking up. “I spent 51 years … doing something that I really like, love and enjoy doing. Not too many people can say that. You look back at this kid playing on the sandlots of Oakland, California, and telling everybody — when he hadn’t seen a big-league ballgame — that he was going to be a big-leaguer.

“To achieve that goal and spend 51 years in this game, that’s mind-boggling.”

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