- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

The title of Frank Robinson’s autobiography is “My Life is Baseball,” and he meant it — even if it was managing a team treated like an unwanted stepchild for five years.

Now it is unclear if that life he has defined for himself — ever since he played baseball on the sandlots of Oakland more than 60 years ago — is about to end unceremoniously, or if it will continue in one form or another.

They haven’t made it official yet, but Robinson won’t be managing the Washington Nationals after this season ends. The announcement could come any time, but Robinson, while not outright saying he was gone, all but indicated as much to reporters yesterday after meeting with team president Stan Kasten and general Jim Bowden.

Hopefully, the right thing will be done by all, and if Robinson wants to remain in baseball, and with this organization, that deal will be made. It’s not just that he deserves that consideration because he is Frank Robinson — though he does — but any organization that can have an asset such as Frank Robinson is better for it. He has 50 years of major league baseball knowledge, which is more than most of the combined experience of the kiddie corps front offices in today’s game.

It is certainly the prerogative of the Lerner family and Kasten to decide who should manage their team. After spending $450 million, no one would deny them the privilege of making such important decisions.

Robinson came close to making it hard for them on the field, taking a team that had no business competing and keeping them in the wild card race until the final weeks of their inaugural season in Washington. And despite a losing record this year, the team never folded, even with a poor rotation.

No, in the five years that Robinson managed the franchise, it never became the Kansas City Royals or the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Nationals were never a guaranteed win for the opponent, even when they were so disregarded by their owners — Major League Baseball — that they couldn’t call up enough warm minor league bodies in September 2003.

Over the last 19 years, the franchise has had just seven winning seasons. Two of them came under Robinson, in 2002 and 2003, when he led the Expos to 83 wins. They were a disrespected franchise, but under Robinson, they never lost respect.

But there were enough questions about Robinson’s managing decisions, style and lack of tangible results — however unreasonable the expectations might have been for such results — for the Lerners and Kasten to make the change.

It’s not an easy change to make for a lot of reasons, as Mark Lerner told The Washington Times in an interview published yesterday: “Frank Robinson has meant a lot to this franchise and a lot to baseball. He’s a legitimate hero for his performances on the field, then as a barrier-breaking manager, and certainly as an ambassador for the game. Regardless when Frank ends his managing career with the Nationals, he will always be a special person in the history of the franchise, a special person with Nationals fans, a special person with this ownership, and will most certainly be honored in some special way.”

Retiring the No. 20 would be a good start. It would honor Robinson for a number of reasons: for being one of baseball’s greatest players, its first black manager, and for his role as the face of the franchise. And, it would always serve as a reminder, years from now, of that special first season when the game came back to the nation’s capital.

It would be a shame if this did not end well, with some resolution for Robinson to remain part of the Nationals organization. His departure from the franchise he has been so much identified with — the Baltimore Orioles — ended poorly when he was let go from the front office after the 1995 season. It created a bitter estrangement between Robinson and the Orioles (hardly a surprise, since the only thing owner Peter Angelos has seemed to excel at is driving away franchise icons), when by all rights Robinson should still be part of the Baltimore Orioles. There is not a member of the 1966 World Series championship team that I have ever spoken to that first and foremost credited the arrival of Robinson there as the key to winning that championship, the start of a six-year stretch of excellence that led to four American League pennants and two World Series titles.

He’s not with the Orioles, though. He is part of the Washington Nationals.

When asked if he could stay with the Nationals in some other capacity as manager, Robinson told reporters, “I don’t know, It’s up to the organization. If they want me to be part of the organization beyond managing the ballclub, it’s up to them.”

It may not be as simple as that.

There are always egos, personalties and history at play in a behind-the-scenes drama like this. But those issues shouldn’t get in the way of a chance for baseball in Washington — its identity so blurred that former Expos catcher Gary Carter was named the Nationals’ “Hometown Hero” in baseball and DHL’s absurd promotion — to reestablish that identity with a long-time connection to a legend of the game.

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