A Whole New Ball Game

They're not the Expos anymore, they're the Nationals, and in Frank Robinson they've got the right man to lead them into Washington, D.C.
March 14, 2005

The washington nationals are now in session. They'll spend this month at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., a construction site of a town off I-95 that owes its life, in a roundabout way, to the man-on-the-moon ambitions of John F. Kennedy. Come April, the Nationals' home will be Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, a charmless multipurpose arena, named for JFK's attorney general and brother. The RFK cheap seats will go for seven bucks, and this summer the Nationals' icon of a manager, Frank Robinson, will go to District of Columbia--area schools, many of them so black you'd think the country still has legal segregation, to sell baseball to kids. It sounds like a line out of baseball's p.r. machine: Hall of Famer goes to school assemblies to give something back. But to Robinson it's a hell of a lot more serious than that.

Of course, the Nationals aren't going to make money selling $7 tickets to kids who can't buy beer. If the team can make money, it will be thanks to George Will, the talking head--seamhead who has six season tickets down low, and all the other suit-wearing émigrés of the District who have wandered far from the teams of their childhoods. Robinson will be the ambassador to this crowd too. He's known George Will for decades. George W. Bush, a Houston Astros' fan in his Texas youth, had Robinson to the White House for dinner in January. Bush got to only a few games last year, although he started off well, throwing an honorary called strike from the rubber on Opening Day in St. Louis, where he'd been invited by the Cardinals' owner, his old friend Bill DeWitt Jr. Bush told Robinson that he'd love to catch the Nationals in person, but he worries about the inconvenience his presence causes paying fans.

"I understand," Robinson said, "but don't let that stop you from seeing us, Mr. President."

Robinson, who turns 70 this year, can do proper. Like a lot of baseball legends who are weary from decades in the public eye, he can also be churlish. His needle is sharp. Recently, upon meeting a young team employee new to baseball, Robinson turned to a relative veteran and said dryly, "He won't last." But his knowledge is vast, and he's willing to share. All you have to do is ask him nicely. So far this spring he has taken on these topics without breaking a sweat:

•Of course baseball has a steroid problem. There has to be some explanation for the size of some of today's sluggers. "Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, myself, the home run hitters of my time, we were considered big. Now we'd be midgets."

•His old friend and former Cincinnati Reds teammate Pete Rose should never be admitted to the Hall of Fame. "When Pete bet on baseball, he broke the Number 1 rule. Gambling on baseball is the one thing that undermines the whole game. You pay the ultimate price for that."

•The typical modern player would never have made it in his playing era, 1956--76: "They're overcoached from the age of six. Somebody is always telling them what to do, so they can't think for themselves. Some unusual situation comes up, and they don't know what to do with the ball."

He's a crank, God bless him.

don't ask Frank Robinson to get poetic on you. He will not attach any high meaning to the return of the national pastime to the nation's capital. When a TV reporter recently asked Robinson to be cosmic about baseball in Washington, he said dismissively, "That's not how guys talk about baseball." When Frank Robby gets to D.C. in April, all he wants to do is master the routes to four places: condo, golf course, stadium, airport. Someone will drive him to the schools.

Wisely, given where he'll be working, Robinson will share nothing with you about his political leanings. But he does know this about Washington: The ball will sail at RFK. He remembers that from when he was an Oriole and the bottom-feeding Senators played there, led by another Hall of Fame player turned manager, Ted Williams.

Robinson did three managerial stints himself before stepping out of the dugout to serve as an assistant G.M. with the Orioles. After a 10-year hiatus he returned to managing in 2002, when Major League Baseball took over the Montreal Expos and Robinson, then baseball's dean of discipline, was asked by Bud Selig to run the club. Robinson took the job in part because he, like Selig, feels the public should see more blacks in baseball's most visible positions. But the main reason was this: Robinson has a fierce need to compete and to see the game played properly. Some people think he's back for a fourth year because, with the Expos migrating to Washington, his old Frenchy club will now play outside, on grass, in front of actual fans--and Americans at that. Nothing of the sort. Robinson would manage underground in Anchorage if there were a big league job in it. He's back because he rediscovered in Montreal that baseball is what he does. He has no retirement plan.

His friend Vada Pinson was the same way. For a long while Pinson's life was unfolding about the same way as Robinson's. Pinson, like Robinson, grew up in Oakland. He was three years behind Robinson at McClymonds High, and he, too, was signed by the Reds. Pinson and Robinson, two of the few black players for Cincinnati in the early 1960s, were roommates. When Pinson's 18-year playing career ended in '75--the same year Robinson became baseball's first black manager, for the Indians--he stayed in baseball as a coach. Pinson worked for a handful of teams and after the '94 season was fired by the Florida Marlins. Nobody hired him for the '95 season, and that year, during the playoffs, he had a stroke and died. He was 57.

"My father wanted more out of the game than the game was willing to give him," Vada Pinson III says. "He wanted to manage." The namesake son is the manager of a Longs Drugs in Oakland. "He loved baseball, loved it to death. If he were alive, he'd tell Frank to stay in the game until the day he drops."

That's exactly what Robinson plans to do. "I'd like to manage another four or five years," he says, sitting in his windowless basement spring training office. On a nearby clothes rack are his virginal Nationals uniforms. "After that I want to go upstairs, be a general manager, team president--something. They can take me out in a box." If you ever need a definition of baseball lifer, there it is.

robinson's contract with the Nationals is for this season only, as Major League Baseball looks for a buyer for the club. There's one of those public-private campaigns, mired in politics, to build a new ballpark in Washington, but the Nationals will be at RFK for at least three years. Like the Expos before them, the Nationals must try to keep up with their National League East rivals, the Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, who all have marquee players and we-expect-to-contend attitudes. The modest Nats have righthander Livan Hernandez, second baseman Jose Vidro and ... Robinson.

Still, the Expos in recent years have been, amazingly, semicompetitive, and these Nationals may be too. The attitude, regardless, is good. On the day pitchers and catchers reported to Space Coast, Robinson had his first meeting with his coaches. It lasted more than two hours, and all you could hear through the cinder-block walls were peals of laughter every 15 minutes or so. Another season was under way.

Robinson's wife, Barbara, has been trying to remember the name of a French restaurant in D.C. that she and Frank used to like in their Baltimore days, but the only thing about Washington that seems to excite Robinson is the hope of playing golf at the Congressional Country Club, a U.S. Open course in the Maryland suburbs, and the prospect of getting District of Columbia kids, many stuck at schools with the poorest performance records in the nation, interested in a game they barely know. One fourth of the 16 public high schools in D.C. do not even have baseball teams. There are neighborhood baseball diamonds that have been dormant for years and are choked with weeds. In the suburban colonies 10 miles away, summer baseball leagues are thriving, but within the District there's little going on: few coaches, bare budgets, limited interest. The lack of a big league club since 1971, when the Washington Senators folded their tents, has been part of the problem.

Going on the public school lecture circuit will not be drudgery for Robinson, who has a grown son and daughter. He has a way with children. "When my son Jon, who's a Down syndrome guy, was young," George Will says, "I'd take him to the Orioles games, and Frank was so great with him." Robinson would bring Jon into the clubhouse and let him hang out in the hours before a game. Robinson likes kids; it's adults he can take or leave. When Barbara announces their Saturday-night dinner partners, Robinson will sometimes say, "I ain't going with them--they're old."

Robinson appreciates the gift children have for simplicity. He tries to operate the same way. He knows the world is complicated enough. "Give me kids in a captive audience, I can get them to baseball," he says. "The game's still great. They just have to be exposed to it." Then, if all goes right, one generation introduces baseball to the next. Old Bush, as Charles Barkley calls 41, taught it to young Bush; Vada Pinson Jr. taught it to Vada III, the star of his high school team; Frank Robinson taught it to his kids, Kevin and Nichelle.

Baseball is multigenerational; the present-day game is always linked to its past. Robinson has credited his success in baseball after he turned 30 to one man, Bill DeWitt, the owner and general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, who traded him to Baltimore after the '65 season. The trade worked out ideally for Robinson. Earl Weaver's Orioles, with Robinson batting third, became one of baseball's iconic teams. Still, DeWitt rejected Robinson, turned the game into a business for him, and for that reason the man sticks in Robinson's craw to this day. For a long while all Robinson wanted to do was prove DeWitt wrong. "He said I was 'an old 30,'" Robinson said the other day. "I'm still trying to figure out what he meant." The real unanswered question for Robinson is if, or how, his race figured into the trade.

Robinson came up in a different time. (This is where the gravitas of the man shows up; the schoolkids should know that.) He went to his first major league spring training camp exactly 50 years ago, a skinny teenager from Oakland trying to make the Reds. Cincinnati trained in Tampa then, and black players could not stay at the team hotel, so Robinson had to rent a room in a boardinghouse on the other side of town. That same year, 1955, Rosa Parks startled the nation when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala.

DeWitt became G.M. of the Reds in '60. (He would buy the team in '62.) One February night in '61 Robinson was arrested around 2 a.m. after an incident at an all-night diner in which a cook brandished a knife at Robinson and Robinson drew a gun. The police put him in a holding cell and called DeWitt. The Reds' G.M., according to Robinson, said, "Let him stay in there until morning." All these years later Robinson is still steamed that DeWitt did not arrange for his immediate release.

After the '64 season Robinson went into DeWitt's office to negotiate his contract for '65. Robinson said DeWitt kept him waiting for an hour and a half. "I finally get in, and the first thing he says is, 'They tell me you're not hustling out there. I'm going to cut your contract by $5,000,'" Robinson says. He eventually got a raise out DeWitt, but what he remembers best is the slap. Robinson was the most hard-nosed of players, one who stood almost on top of the plate. He dogged nothing but the dugout-to-outfield run. Then, after the '65 season, came the biggest slap. At the time, the trade, which sent Robinson to Baltimore for outfielder Dick Simpson and pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun, was regarded, in the language of old school G.M.'s, as value for value. It took Robinson's fierce '66 season, when he hit a career-high 49 home runs and the Orioles won the World Series, to make it look as it does today, like one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.

In his 1988 book, Extra Innings, Robinson wrote that he and Pinson were thought of as "a Negro clique" that hurt team morale. Jackie Pinson, Vada's ex-wife, said in a recent interview that the Reds believed the duo was "double trouble," even though Pinson was well-known for being a mild-mannered, early-to-bed baseball gent. Barbara Robinson said the Reds wanted a "white superstar, not a black one." These are impressions; there are people who would dispute them. In any event, DeWitt is one of the few G.M.'s to have won a pennant in both the American and National leagues, but Robinson is the only player to have been the MVP in both leagues. In '66, Robinson won the Triple Crown and was turned away at a Baltimore movie house. "Your money's no good here," he was told.

And now Robinson will report to work in the nation's capital, to manage the local baseball team. He's not trying to prove anything to Bill DeWitt anymore. DeWitt died 23 years ago.

Robinson knows DeWitt's son, Bill DeWitt Jr., owner of the Cardinals and friend to the President. DeWitt and Robinson have been bumping into each other for years, in Cooperstown, in baseball's New York City offices, in ballparks across the country. Robinson knows he'll see him in Washington, sooner or later. They're always cordial to each other but never talk about their most important common link. That's not how guys talk about baseball. "I never bring it up with him, and he never brings it up with me," Robinson said as he was driving out of Space Coast Stadium the other day in his gleaming white Cadillac. There were young players on the field, playing catch and jabbering away in Spanish.

When it comes to the first Bill DeWitt, Robinson and Bill Jr. seem to be talking about two different men. In his Yale summers and after he graduated from Harvard Business School in 1965, the younger DeWitt worked for his father. "There was once a meeting in his office, and the subject was whether we should get Bob Veale, and one of the guys said, 'We can't have a black pitcher,'" Bill Jr. said recently. You get the feeling the actual language was far coarser. "After the meeting my father said to me, 'You see what I have to put up with?'" What his father cared about, Bill Jr. says, "was putting the best possible team he could on the field."

In the dawn of a new season, the Cardinals' owner was thinking that maybe he should start the conversation he and the Hall of Famer have never had. It would be uncomfortable, but hell, at the end of the day we most regret what we don't do, don't say, right? DeWitt is a baseball guy, and Robinson has been living in the game for 50 years and living in his skin for a score beyond that. His knowledge is vast. You get a chance to tap into that, you take it. The D.C. schoolkids will figure that out soon enough.

 

Robinson would manage underground in Anchorage if there were a big league job in it. HE'S BACK because he rediscovered in Montreal that baseball is what he does

 

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Chuck Solomon MAKEOVER Like the ball club that calls it home in the springtime, Space Coast Stadium has a fresh look. COLOR PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (2) NEW TO THE LINEUP Shortstop Cristian Guzman (left) is Washington's top signee. COLOR PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (2) MY WAY Robinson deals effectively with the modern player, though he contends that none would have made it in his heyday. COLOR PHOTOBILL FRAKES (TOP) GAME ONLacking big-name players, Zach Day and the Nationals face a tall order in a division with four solid teams. COLOR PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER IN FOR THE LONG HAUL Robinson, who initially signed on for a single season, now talks of managing for four or five more years.

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)