The Heat Is On As mounting pressure--and losses--sparked rumors of his departure, Expos manager Frank Robinson started to show that familiar fire

July 28, 2002

People used to call him angry, and he didn't dispute that. Didn't
even mind it, really. You would have been angry, too, if you had
been a black ballplayer whose career began in the 1950s. You
would have had the same rage inside if you had sat on the bus as
a minor leaguer waiting for your white teammates to bring you
food from the restaurants that wouldn't serve you, or if you had
led the Cincinnati Reds to the National League title in 1961 only
to have a nightclub owner who didn't recognize you block the
entrance to the team's pennant-clinching party and tell you his
establishment didn't allow Negroes. Angry? Frank Robinson would
have been a fool to not be angry.

It actually irritates him more when people say he has mellowed,
because he doesn't think that's accurate. Robinson, the Montreal
Expos' manager, has always hated it when someone doesn't take the
time to get things right. "I haven't mellowed," he says. "I don't
really like that word. I've adjusted. There's a difference." The
difference is that the anger, the passion, the
competitiveness--the heat--is still there. That much was evident
last week, a tumultuous one for the Expos that included a tearful
Robinson addressing the media after a heartbreaking loss, dugout
fireworks that precipitated a closed-door clubhouse meeting and
rumors of the manager's imminent resignation or dismissal.

Yes, the fire still burns, but Robinson controls the heat better
than he once did. At 66 he realizes that he cannot be the angry
young man any longer, that as a man moves into middle age and
beyond he has to learn to control his inner flame.

Robinson can do that now, at least most of the time. He's still
enough of a baseball conservative, a believer in the values he
grew up with in the game--not fraternizing with opponents, a
manager's right to discipline a player as he sees fit--that
Montreal general manager Omar Minaya jokingly calls him Clarence
Thomas. But Robinson is more diplomatic than he was as a player,
less rigid than he once was as a manager. When he met general
manager Al Campanis after being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers
in 1972, Campanis gave him a booklet, The Dodger Way to Play
Baseball. Robinson dropped the booklet on the G.M.'s desk without
opening it. "Excuse me, Mr. Campanis," he said, "but if I don't
know how to play baseball by now, after 16 years in the major
leagues, I never will."

You can still feel the heat coming from Robinson, the desire to
run not just a 25-man roster but an entire organization as a team
president, the need to blaze a trail for minorities in the front
office the same way he did in the manager's office. When you feel
that heat, it's easy to understand why last winter Robinson left
his job in the commissioner's office overseeing on-field
operations to become the Expos' manager. It's even easier to
understand why he sits now in a spartan manager's office in
Olympic Stadium--a ballpark so sparsely filled during games that
its upper deck could be used for storage--instead of at his home
in Bel Air, Calif., where he could have spent this year golfing
every day, enjoying his season tickets to his beloved Los Angeles
Lakers and playing the role of Hall of Famer at leisure. Heat
like Robinson's can't be released at the 19th hole or in
courtside seats.

When Major League Baseball bought the Expos in February, allowing
Montreal owner Jeffrey Loria to purchase the Florida Marlins,
commissioner Bud Selig asked if Robinson would be interested in
managing the club. After a few days' thought Robinson accepted.
It was odd, in a way, to see a former player of his stature, a
man with 586 career home runs, two World Series rings with the
Baltimore Orioles and MVP awards from both leagues, take what
amounted to a temp job: caretaker for a year until the
franchise's future could be decided. But in one sense the Expos
and Robinson seemed perfect for each other--a man with so much
heat inside him trying to revive an organization so close to
death that its body was nearly cold. The result has been one of
the more uplifting stories of a largely disheartening baseball
season. With the twin blades of contraction or relocation poised
to drop on Montreal after the season, the Expos have not only
remained competitive, but they have also retooled for a run at
the postseason.

A pair of mid-season trades brought Montreal an ace, Cleveland
Indians righthander Bartolo Colon, and a bat, Marlins leftfielder
Cliff Floyd, and although catching the first-place Atlanta Braves
in the NL East remains a long shot, a wild-card berth is not.
Through Sunday, the Expos were 49-49, 14 1/2 games behind Atlanta
and seven behind the Dodgers in the wild-card race. "I hope it
won't sound like I have too much of an ego to say I felt that I
was the right man for this job," Robinson says. "I thought that
maybe I could get the kind of baseball out of these guys that
they're capable of. They're not there yet, but they're getting
closer."

Robinson has a talented core of players, most notably All-Star
starters Vladimir Guerrero in rightfield and Jose Vidro at second
base, both of whom generally listen well and play hard. On the
rare occasions when they don't, Robinson usually turns to Minaya,
the Expos' 43-year-old G.M., to blow off steam. "He's been great
with the players, and they've been receptive to him," says
Minaya. "There have been a few times when he's been very, very
upset with a player, but Frank's professional enough to know how
to address it." Robinson has also learned enough from his
previous managerial jobs--with Cleveland (1975 to '77), where he
became the majors' first black manager; the San Francisco Giants
('81 to '84) and the Orioles ('88 to '91)--to know when not to
address it. "There was a time when every time a player made a
mistake, he could expect to see me right then, before the game
was over, wanting to know why," Robinson says. "But now I realize
that sometimes it's best to just let it go."

By week's end, though, after being swept in three games at
Florida (a series in which they scored a total of two runs), the
Expos had lost eight of 11, and Robinson was finding it harder to
let mistakes go--his players' or his own. On July 15 Montreal held
an 8-3 lead over the Philadelphia Phillies going into the ninth
inning. Expos reliever Jim Brower had thrown three strong
innings, and Robinson sent him out to begin the ninth. Brower
surrendered three runs before Robinson pulled him. Montreal's
shaky bullpen then gave up five more runs in the inning, and the
Expos lost 11-8. Afterward Robinson sat behind the desk in his
office surrounded by reporters, blaming himself. "I'll take this
one, fellas," he said, biting his bottom lip. "Put this one on
me." As he spoke, his eyes welled up and a tear ran down his
cheek.

The following night the Expos lost to the Phils again, 6-3, when
they were unable to recover from the control problems of starter
Tony Armas Jr. The 24-year-old righthander walked five and threw
three wild pitches, and Montreal was in a 5-1 hole when he was
removed after 3 2/3 innings. A frustrated Armas left the mound
before Robinson arrived, a major breach of protocol in the
manager's book. Before Armas hit the showers, Robinson gave him a
stern lecture in the dugout. The manager also had words for the
entire team after the game, and the clubhouse stayed closed for
nearly half an hour. Robinson huddled with Minaya after that,
leading to speculation that he was about to resign or be fired.
"I hate losing," Robinson said after the meetings. "I think I
take it harder than the players sometimes." But both Robinson and
Minaya dismissed the possibility of a managerial change and
denied published reports that Minaya had to talk Robinson out of
quitting. "I remain as committed to this job as I've ever been,"
Robinson said the following day. "I have every intention of
finishing the season."

It remains to be seen if last week's events are the beginning of
the end for Robinson or just a brief rough patch in his otherwise
remarkably smooth tenure with the Expos. Until the tongue-lashing
of Armas, Robinson had been a lovable curmudgeon for most of the
season. "Frank likes to put up that front of being gruff with
people," says Minaya, "but it doesn't take long to see that
that's exactly what it is, a front."

Before a game against Atlanta this month Robinson walked out of
the clubhouse to find two writers discussing their golf swings.
"Hey, when you're here you talk baseball," he barked, before
drawing laughs by adding a Canadian touch. "Eh?"

He rarely allowed himself such light moments when he was a
player. From the first day of his rookie season with the Reds, in
1956, he was a missile on the base paths, hurtling into second
base to break up double plays and scattering middle infielders as
if they were milk bottles in a carnival game. When he dug into
the batter's box, he crowded the plate, Roger Angell once wrote,
like "an impatient subway traveler leaning over the edge of the
platform, peering down the tracks for the D train." Pitchers
inevitably bounced fastballs off him--he was hit 198 times in his
career--even though they quickly learned that he was immune to
intimidation.

"I don't talk to these guys about my career," Robinson says.
"They don't want to hear that. But I think I was tough, and I was
a winner, and if I can bring those qualities out in them, I will
have done my job. I'll be able to go on to the next thing,
wherever that might take me." Wherever that is, Robinson won't be
hard to find. Just look for the glow from his fire.

Read Phil Taylor's column, "The Hot Button," every Monday on
cnnsi.com.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO SLOW BURN Robinson watched in disgust as Floyd and the Expos dropped their third straight in Florida on Sunday. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS TURNABOUT Robinson, who previously served as baseball's dean of discipline, has already been ejected twice this month.

"I hate losing," Robinson says. "I think I take it harder than
the players sometimes."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)