Frank Robinson will forever be part of #Nats history, but what if?

Frank Robinson at his last game in RFK in 2006; Photo by Luis Albisu for TalkNats

For the Washington Nationals, there was debate as to whether jersey number 20 should have been retired after Ian Desmond left for free agency. For those who do not remember, number 20 was Frank Robinson. In baseball, number 20 was synonymous with Frank Robinson. A larger than life Hall of Famer who was part of this region’s baseball since 1966 when he was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Baltimore Orioles for Jack BaldschunMilt Pappas and Dick Simpson.  It was considered one of the worst trades in history in hindsight for the Reds. While Robinson was 30-years-old at the time of the trade, he proved to have a lot more in the tank. In his first season with the Orioles, he not only won the MVP award as the only player ever to accomplish that in both leagues, but he won the Triple Crown and a World Series ring. 

Number 20 could do it all. A true five-tool player who made everyone around him better. When he made a mistake, he owned up to it. He was the clubhouse leader. He was a mentor to the younger players. He was active in the community. Yet, he was underrated in baseball. Number 20 had four seasons where he hit for over a 1.000 OPS, but because he played in the same era as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle who began their careers as New Yorkers, they got so much of the baseball headlines. Later, Frank Robinson would break another color barrier becoming the first African-American manager of a Major League team, and he did that as a player-manager. Okay, we can agree that Frank probably should not have put himself in games in 1976 at the age of 40, but he did and so it was. He was fired from the Indians mid-season the next year and did not return to managing until 1981.

The lessons Frank Robinson learned as a player and a person growing up in the 1950’s shaped who he was, and he wanted to make a difference he once told me. I had the opportunity on dozens of occasions to meet Frank Robinson. He was one of my favorite players growing up. When he got the Expos managerial job in 2002, he stayed on to become the first manager of the Washington Nationals in 2005.

It worked out well for the Nats to have Frank Robinson in the dugout because having a team with no prior connection to the region that relocated from Montreal had the familiar number 20 at the helm. This is where the “what if” comes into play. Nobody expected that  Robinson could manage this inaugural 2005 team to respectability, and he did it. That team was in first place through the All-Star break. Technically, the team was owned by Major League baseball, and they made no attempts to allow general manager Jim Bowden to make in-season upgrades. He could not trade for star players to bolster a run at the pennant with this surprise team that just faded way after July 24th like the flags that flew above RFK stadium that faded in the intense summer sunshine and bleached from its stellar form. There was no help coming at the trade deadline for that rotation even though the Nats held first place for 53-days in that inaugural season. If only the predecessor brains of that 2002 Expos organization did not trade away the stellar farm system, then maybe there would have been a “what if”. Cliff Lee could have been a National in 2005 if he was not given away by the Expos three years earlier. Lee, in 2005, was the top pitcher in the AL that year with a .783 winning percentage and an 18-5 record.

“He was an ambassador for both the Nationals,” Mark Lerner said. “And the game throughout the city, but was especially fond of sharing stories with children from a nearby elementary school about his time in the big leagues. More than all of this, he was a dear friend to our family and will always be remembered as being an important part of the Nationals family.”

Like any manager, they know that circumstances outside of their control changes their future. Number 20 did not have the horses to keep the ride going in late July of 2005. By the time Ryan Zimmerman was drafted in that same year and called up on the first day of September, the team had fallen to 5th place. It was over. What could have been — just was not meant to be Frank once told me of his team that finished with a record of 81-81. He had a philosophical way of looking at things. Sometimes very direct with some rough edges. Maybe as direct as his mentors and managers once were with him. He was a leader of men and managed with lessons to be learned. Was it a lesson with Ryan Zimmerman that he kept him on the bench for most of his September call-up? Jim Bowden would tell his story of September 2005 when he claimed that he told Frank Robinson he was calling up the 2005 1st round Draft pick who was only in the minor leagues for two months. Bowden said Frank Robinson did not want to play Zimmerman but did so sparingly. When Zim got limited playing time, it was mostly as a pinch-hitter or a mid-game or late-game fill-in. Ryan made the most of the opportunities and got his first start on September 7th in his fifth game with the Nats. His next start would not come until September 11th and then he subbed a few more games. On September 22nd to the end of the season, Zim started every game for the Nats in 2005 and finished the season with a .397 batting average. For all of that, Zimmerman went on and nearly won the 2006 Rookie of the Year award if not for Hanley Ramirez.  What if?

Frank Robinson’s boss was Jim Bowden who was critical of Frank Robinson on how he did not give Ryan Zimmerman enough playing time, but that was Bowden’s opinion as the Washington Nationals general manager. At that part of his managerial career, Robinson was not going to be told how to write his lineup card.

“I’m telling you, Zimmerman was better than what Frank had,” Bowden said. “He’s the manager and he didn’t play him.  Okay, well he finally played him and understood what I was saying. He was better than what he had, but he didn’t want to bring up a rookie that was drafted and put him in the show.”

Frank had his reasons, and the season was lost at that point anyway. Maybe it was a lesson he needed to teach the 20-year-old rookie who barely sniffed the minor leagues having only played 67-games. There was an indoctrination that Robinson believed in with his old-school style, and Zimmerman said it shaped him as a player learning the game under number 20. He said that Robinson was like a father to him in the nine calendar months they shared as teacher and student. Can you imagine Frank Robinson as your first big league manager?

“He taught me how to be a professional,” Zimmerman said. “He was hard to play for in some senses because he was so good at baseball that he didn’t understand when I swung at a slider in the dirt. He probably thought he never did that. I will always appreciate how he treated me, and how tough he was on me because it made me the player I am today. Using those teaching points not only make you a better player — but a better person as well.”

Zimmerman would tell the story of how Robinson wanted accountability in 2006 after a long losing streak. Number 20 looked around the room and wanted answers after a game.

“’We’re not leaving until someone tells me what’s going on’,” Zimmerman said of Robinson’s remarks to open the team meeting. “He stared around the room. I’m telling you for sure there was more than 10-minutes of silence. I’m sitting there, and I’m a 21-year-old kid. I can tell you exactly what was wrong. We were playing like crap. But there’s zero chance I’m saying anything. Finally one of the veterans said something, and [Frank] just walked out of the room…But that was the kind of the competitor he was. He didn’t care if we didn’t quite have a roster as good as the other team. He just wanted you to go out and compete, and if you did not respect the game, and play the game the right way he would do something like that. He would teach you a lesson. I will always be grateful just for the way he made people and challenged people to play the game the right and respect the game.”

For his ex-teammate Jim Palmer, he told the story of how Frank one time did not hustle out a flyball that he thought was a home run in Fenway Park. The ball hit off the wall, and number 20 did not run it out. It was a one-time thing. After the game he fined himself as judge and defendant of the Kangaroo Court and apologized to his manager and teammates that it would never happen again. It never did.

“That made an impression on me as a young player,” Palmer said. “I learned a lot from Frank Robinson from being his teammate.”

In 2015, Frank Robinson got his name in the Nationals’ Ring of Honor. But they did not retire his number.

“It was just like a magical thing that was happening for this ballclub,” Robinson said in 2015. “The only thing I regret is we were not able to finish. I would have loved to have finished it off for the fans here and the organization, and it didn’t happen, but I’m very proud of that team.”

Robinson told me after the 2006 season that he was shocked he was not retained as the Nationals did not bring him back for the 2007 season. Rumors persisted that the Nationals President of Baseball Operations, Stan Kasten, wanted to make a change for the future and Robinson was part of that change. Robinson was 71-years-old at the end of the 2006 season but he was a baseball lifer and you want to leave on your own terms. He did not get that chance, and his baseball career ended as a Washington National.

For all he was, there was a softer side to number 20. He once shed some tears in 2006 when he pulled his third-string catcher Matt LeCroy mid-game and replaced him with the emergency catcher Robert Fick. It was perhaps the moment most Nats fans will remember about Frank Robinson managing the Washington Nationals.

“I’ve never had that happen before,” Robinson said. “And I don’t like someone to go through what [LeCroy] had to go through today. I feel for people who have to go through something like that. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I feel for him, and I hope the fans understand.”

“If my daddy was managing this team, I’m sure he would have done the same thing,” LeCroy said. “I made a lot of things famous in the game. I made a manager cry.”

Lessons are learned at many stages and at many stages emotions are felt even when you have to do the right thing. Frank was a good person, and he loved kids. I told Frank that I was managing a travel team of baseball players. He asked me to bring them out to the ballpark so we arrived at 2pm to a closed stadium. These kids were 12-years-old at the time. They had no idea of the legend of Frank Robinson, but he talked to them for several minutes and smiled as he talked. Maybe he changed them on that day.  I used to call number 20 “Cranky Franky” at times when he was irritable, but he shined in that moment talking to these kids. If you caught Frank at the wrong moment, it could be a moment you will never forget especially if there was a lesson to be learned. You would ponder on that moment as to the deeper meaning — because deep down inside, he was shaped differently than most and that is what made number 20 special.

Frank Robinson with me in 2005. If only cellphone cameras and video existed back then.



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