Saturday, September 9, 2006

I know Stan Kasten and the Washington Nationals believe they have every right to treat information about the team fans pay a lot of money to watch as if it were a state secret. (How are those talks going with Alfonso Soriano, anyway?)

But if they don’t want to tell the rest of us what their plans are, at least they might want to tell their manager.

Kasten told The Washington Times this week that he will not discuss Frank Robinson’s status — or the club’s timetable for making a decision — publicly. Of course not. Heaven forbid the public investing their hard-earned dollars to buy tickets and merchandise for this last-place team be entrusted with such knowledge as what the owners who will reap the rewards of a new publicly funded ballpark might be planning for the manager. It’s just not done.

But what’s the point of keeping it from Robinson? Doesn’t one of the greatest players in the history of the game and one who has made, for the most part, at least a semi-silk purse out of the pig’s ear that has been this franchise since baseball took over ownership of the team in 2002, deserve better?

“I’d like to know,” Robinson told The Washington Times this week. “I’m under the assumption that something will be told to me before the season is over. I think I deserve that.”

He deserves more than that. Frank Robinson is baseball royalty, yet has never been treated as such. Hank Aaron has the career home run record. Willie Mays played in New York in the 1950s, and, of course, Roberto Clemente became an icon when he died in a tragic plane crash trying to bring supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Frank Robinson is in that class. Yet he wasn’t even named to the ridiculous MasterCard All-Century baseball team in 1999. He has been in the game 51 years, yet has never truly had the chance to say goodbye on his own terms. He played 10 years in Cincinnati and was traded. He played five years in Baltimore and was traded. And when he finished his playing career with the Cleveland Indians, he was a player-manager, so there was no fanfare, no particular notice when he stepped down.

If this is it for Robinson in a baseball uniform, then say so now, so the fans at RFK can have something worth coming to the ballpark for the rest of the season other than the fumes of faith being sold by new ownership.

“I’ve never had anything like some players get,” Robinson said. “And I think it would mean more for me here because it’s near Baltimore. I think the fans understand what I did there, and there are Orioles fans who have become Nationals fans and appreciate what I did. I just think I would like to say goodbye to them.”

There has been a feeling at the ballpark that Robinson will not be back as manager. I don’t know if that is the right decision or not. He was voted the worst manager in baseball for the second straight year in Sports Illustrated’s secret poll of players, yet he managed a team last year that stayed in the wild card race for most of the season, with more handcuffs and handicaps than any other manager in baseball.

He has a last-place team this year with a bad Class AAA pitching staff, with little hope for success on any given night. Yet this team continues to play hard and not quit, winning five straight on its recent homestand.

It’s difficult to believe Frank Robinson isn’t a big part of that. He played in Baltimore for just five years, yet you would think he founded the franchise and spent 30 years there, based on the way he is revered not just by fans, but by his former teammates. I was talking to Andy Etchebarren, the catcher when Robinson was there from 1966 to 1971, recently and when Robinson came up, Etchebarren said, “Frank taught us how to win.” I’ve yet to talk to a player from those great Orioles teams that doesn’t offer that unsolicited assessment.

Maybe we’ll be stunned and Robinson will be kept on as manager. Maybe he will be asked to be part of the front office. Whatever the decision, it should be made soon, if it hasn’t been already made.

And then someone should throw a farewell party befitting a living legend, with a fitting tribute. Frank Robinson is one of five players with numbers retired by two franchises. There is just one player — Nolan Ryan — who has had his number retired by three different organizations.

Frank Robinson and his No. 20 should be the second.

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