Mixed in among the various promotions this season for the Washington Nationals — “Star Wars” day, the free tote bags and Jayson Werth Chia Pet day — is one particular noteworthy event that truly commemorates the return of baseball to Washington and the 10th anniversary of the Nationals.
May 9 is Frank Robinson Day.
The Hall of Famer will be inducted into the Nationals Ring of Honor as part of an anniversary celebration.
“I’m looking forward to coming back to Washington,” Robinson said. “It will be a positive experience under these circumstances.”
“Under these circumstances” is a curious response, because there have been a number of missteps by this organization trying to recognize Robinson and profit from it at the same time with a bobblehead or key chain or some other trinket.
You could make the case that there might not be any Anthony Rendon garden gnome days at the park or Stephen Strasburg bobblehead games without Robinson, whose presence and credibility helped keep the orphaned franchise alive when Major League Baseball took it over. The franchise, then based in Montreal, was involved in the historic three-way deal that led to the sale of the Boston Red Sox to John Henry and Larry Lucchino, and in turn the sale of the then-Florida Marlins to Jeffrey Loria, allowing him to get out from under the failing Expos franchise.
It was an unprecedented transaction, and raised numerous questions about the credibility of the Expos, which became the property of the other 29 Major League Baseball owners, and how seriously anyone could take the organization with the massive conflict of interest hanging over it.
What do you do if you want to establish credibility? You call on Robinson.
Robinson is baseball royalty, one of the greatest ballplayers of any era, who broke with that group of African-American ballplayers that followed Jackie Robinson in 1956 with the Cincinnati Reds. After 21 years on baseball, he left with 586 home runs, 1,812 RBI and 2,943 hits, nearly getting to that hallowed mark of 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. As he would like to say, “If I knew that was going to be such a big deal, I would have played a few more games.”
He became baseball’s first African-American manager, hired by the Cleveland Indians in 1975. He would go on to manage the San Francisco Giants, becoming the first African-American manager in the National League, and the Baltimore Orioles, and was named American League Manager of the Year in 1989.
And in 2002, with commissioner Bud Selig trying to keep the Expos on life support with an uncertain future, he was asked to take over what appeared to be a farce.
He got people to look past that, because of his presence. He was Frank Robinson.
“I did understand that my responsibility was beyond the field, not just managing the team,” Robinson said.
He felt the same way when the Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals in 2005, marking the return of baseball to the nation’s capital after a 33-year absence.
“When we came to Washington, we had to try to create a fan base,” said Robinson, 79, who had been executive vice president for baseball development under Selig and was recently named senior advisor to new commissioner Rob Manfred. “That first year was very important.”
It became a magical season, with the Nationals unexpectedly getting off to a winning first half with a 50-31 record, sitting in first place in the National League East by 2 ½ games by the all-star break.
“That first year was very important,” he said. “We showed people that players gave what they had. We weren’t the most talented team, but the effort was outstanding. The first half of the season mirrored that. We almost had to win to show people that this was a legitimate product.
“It was a very special year. I’m very proud of that team.”
Of course, the second half of that season was a different story, as the Nationals posted the exact opposite record, 31-50, to finish 81-81 and in last place in the very competitive NL East.
Every move that Robinson made that was right in the first half seemed to go wrong in the second half.
“I’m still trying to figure out what happened in the second half of the season,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that. I said to my coaches, ‘This is not the same team we had in the first half.’ It was so weird. The plays we made before we weren’t making in the second half. During the first half of the season, one night I was talking to my daughter and said, ‘We were behind going into the seventh, but we came back and won,’ and she said, ‘I wasn’t worried, I knew you would come back. It almost became a thing.’”
In the end, they were probably what their record was, but they had established a season of credibility, led by the presence of Robinson. All that work would be wasted until general manager and franchise gravedigger Jim Bowden “resigned” in March 2009 following the Smiley Gonzalez scandal. After a 71-91 record in 2006, Robinson was let go.
There are statues of Robinson in two cities — Baltimore and Cincinnati, where his No. 20 has been retired by both franchises. Washington was given a gift in 2005 not just of a baseball team, but to have the presence of such a historic figure in the history of the game connected to the baseball in this city.
Finally, it is time to say thank you.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.