- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Washington Nationals made good on their commitment to community service this year. They have played host for and participated in numerous school functions, clinics, events and activities.

The Nats tapped into one service, though, of particular interest and importance to the District and baseball. The club has formed a partnership with a group of black churches committed to starting a youth baseball league designed to get more black kids into the game.

Funny. That’s exactly what former Nationals manager Frank Robinson wants to do. That’s part of his agenda for the commissioner’s office.

Robinson is one of the historic figures in baseball, part of the generation that followed Jackie Robinson. He was the first black manager in major league history, an icon in the black community. He also was the face of the Nationals for two seasons in the District and five in Montreal when the club still was the Expos.

Yet, Robinson somehow remains estranged from the Nationals, the same organization he served, the same organization that supports his goal in the black community.

That’s not right.

The cold war between the Nationals and Robinson, who parted ways with the club after last season, needs to end if for no other reason than to further the goal both parties hold: making baseball relevant again to a new generation of blacks.

This week would be a good time to end it. Robinson is in town tonight for yet another honor from an organization other than the Nationals. He will be inducted into the Greater Washington Sports Alliance Hall of Champions, on display at the Verizon Center, in the “Sneakerball” event tonight at the National Building Museum.

This marks the second award Robinson has received this year here from an organization other than the city’s major league franchise. In April, Robinson received the inaugural George Washington University Jackie Robinson Society Community Recognition Award for his contributions to baseball and America.

Do you think it would be too much for the Nationals to find a way to give Robinson the recognition he deserves before he is honored by everyone else in town?

The club offered Robinson several minor roles in the organization after it decided not to bring him back as manager, but he declined. The Nationals also planned to hold a Frank Robinson Day in May. Whatever were their plans, it wasn’t enough to thaw the frosty relationship.

“Our door remains open for many different possibilities in the future,” team president Stan Kasten said. “We are open to still having discussions.”

Robinson’s absence looms large when the club partners with an organization like the National Black Church Initiative (NBCI), which hopes to get about 100 churches in the area behind a youth baseball league starting next season.

The club collected baseball equipment and money for the NBCI from fans at Nationals games at RFK on Saturday and Sunday. The club also presented the group with a check for $5,000 from the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, the project started by the owners of the team, the Lerner family, and another $5,000 from the Baseball Tomorrow Fund.

Rev. Anthony Evans, the NBCI president, said the group wants to open the door for youths in their communities to the opportunities and benefits of baseball.

“Baseball has a great tradition among African-Americans, but the number of players are way down, and we want to introduce African-Americans to baseball again,” Rev. Evans said.

Robinson is trying to do the same thing.

Robinson recently told me that one of his tasks is to determine the reasons for the huge drop in participation in baseball among blacks.

“I am going to the sources and people who are in baseball, finding out why they chose to be baseball players instead of basketball or football, who got them involved in baseball,” he said. “I also plan to get out in the communities and talk to young people in the inner cities and adults there as well to find out why more young African-Americans are not playing baseball.

“It is important to me because I had the opportunity to play the game of baseball, and it is responsible for my lifestyle. People helped me on the way up with my career, and I am just trying to return that and give back to the game. This is a project that is very dear to me.”

Evans said his group hopes to get in touch with Robinson before he leaves town to let him know about its work. Maybe the Nationals could arrange that, and, while they’re at it, realize that one way to bring black fans to the ballpark and black kids to the diamond is to create a lasting legacy for one of their heroes.

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