MAYBE IT’S FOR the best that Frank Robinson played and managed in a different era of baseball. He certainly would have thrived in any setting, but he’d likely have had little patience for the current state of his sport.
Robinson, who died Thursday at age 83, probably would have bristled at advice from Ivy League-educated general managers, spouting Sabermetrics and statistical probabilities. He played (and managed) the game his way, far more often by feel than by percentages or sabermetrics.
There are a lot of firsts associated with Robinson: first black major league manager, first man to win the MVP in each league, first manager of the Washington Nationals. But he was decidedly old school.
Long before Barry Bonds crowded the plate, Robinson did so (without any protective padding). He ran the bases just as his idol, Jackie Robinson, had: cleanly but aggressively, and any infielder who wasn’t quick or smart enough to avoid him paid a price.
He was brash enough to pencil himself in the lineup in his historic debut as the player/manager of the Cleveland Indians in 1975, and talented enough to homer in his first at-bat.
Yet he was also humble enough to don a robe and wig and preside over the Baltimore Orioles’ famed “Kangaroo Court” during their glory days of the late 1960s and early ‘70s—and later, to film an iconic beer commercial with former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson in which they purported to be brothers. (One glance was proof that they weren’t.)
Those shenanigans took place off the field. On it, Robinson was deadly serious about playing the game the right way and the integrity of the sport.
Few, if any, former players were more outspoken when it came to baseball’s steroid era. Robinson was fiercely proud of his accomplishments; when he retired, only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays had hit more career home runs than his 586. He seethed when Bonds surpassed all of them, and when Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez helped relegate him to 10th place on the list.
Many great athletes struggle when they become managers or coaches. And while Robinson never managed a team to the playoffs in 16 seasons and had a career winning percentage of .475, he presided over two of the more remarkable turnarounds of the past generation.
In 1988, he replaced the fired Cal Ripken Sr. after the Orioles lost their first six games. They eventually plunged to an unprecedented 0–21 and finished 54–107. But the next year, Baltimore went 87–75 and nearly won the American League East. And in 1991, he reworked Cal Ripken Jr.’s chameleon swing, leading to Ripken’s second MVP award.
Then in 2005, when baseball finally returned to D.C. after a 33-season absence, Robinson had the nomadic, ragtag Nationals in first place in the NL East at the All-Star break before they unsurprisingly faded to an 81–81 finish. That was still their best record until 2012, after they were bad enough to draft Stepen Strasburg and Bryce Harper No. 1 overall in consecutive years.
Robinson was as hard-nosed and demanding a manager as he was a player. He was Ryan Zimmerman’s first skipper when he arrived in D.C. in late summer 2005, the franchise’s first draft pick after their relocation.
“I still remember being so nervous to walk into his office and introduce myself,” Zimmerman said in a statement Thursday. “He was a living legend and I was a 20-year-old kid right out of college. I can honestly say that was the last time I ever felt that way around him.
“From that day on, he took care of me and treated me like a son. He was hard on me at times and I wondered why. I’m positive my career was shaped by the way he treated me an pushed me to be a professional.”
Professional. To Robinson, that may have been the ultimate compliment.