Orioles' troubles are on field, not in dugout


May 05, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

I'm not sure what this means, but the trophy that Frank Robinson got for being Manager of the Year in 1989 is broken.

It still sits on a table across from Robinson's desk, but all that's left of it is the base. The trophy part, which fell off sometime between last season and this one, is in a box somewhere. My advice to Robinson is to get the thing fixed. It couldn't hurt.

"My wife is after me to get it done," Robinson was saying the other day.

She's not the only one after Robinson. Suddenly, a whole posse of folks is after him. Maybe you're one of them.

Sorry, but I'm not.

The talk shows are talking and the letter writers are writing and it's becoming quite fashionable to indulge in a little Frank-bashing. You hear it at the lunch table and at the beauty parlor and probably in the halls of Congress. I understand Chuck Robb talks about it when he's getting a massage.

What's Robinson doing that's so terrible?

You want the quick answer? Well, it seems the team is losing. That's usually enough to get a manager fired, isn't it? The more specific criticisms are that: a) He can't handle the pitchers; b) He doesn't communicate with his players; c) The team looks like it's quitting on him; d) The other teams keep winning.

Well, d is true. The Orioles are off to a bad start. They're not hitting at all, and the starting pitching has been, in its best moments, erratic. Robinson has juggled the lineup, a tactic that allows people to suggest that he's not giving players enough time to work out of their slumps. When he doesn't juggle the lineup, it allows people to suggest that he's complacent.

"I can't just sit here and do nothing," he says.

Here's what he has done: He is playing everyone on his roster, looking, he says, to catch lightning in a bottle. He calls off batting practice for a day. Heck, he's even invited the queen to stop by. And still the team doesn't hit.

What's he supposed to do about the starting pitching? It's his fault that before Friday night's turnaround Ben McDonald's fastball seemed so hittable or that Dave Johnson still can't get anyone out?

On the post-game talk shows I've heard, it seems Robinson always takes out the pitcher either too early or too late. Robinson used to listen to the shows. That's when he was popular in town, two long years ago.

Asked if he listens now, Robinson shakes his head in a look of mock horror. Why drive yourself any more crazy than you have to?

"They always get the last managerial move, so they're always right," Robinson said of the callers.

Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda has a great story about second-guessers. He was managing winter ball in Puerto Rico, and, after each loss, the team owner would call him in and question his every move. So, one day, in the middle of the game, Lasorda called time, walked out of the dugout and headed straight for the owner's box.

Lasorda: "I asked him, 'What do I do now? Should I take the pitcher out? Who should I bring in?' He just sputtered something about me being the manager. I said: "That's exactly right. I'm the manager.' "

As the manager, Robinson does communicate with his players (although maybe some managers do it better); he handles his pitchers reasonably well (the earlier he pulls his starter, the earlier Paul Kilgus comes in); and the team is not quitting on him (players have a way of not looking too spirited on the wrong end of 14-1 scores). Is he a great manager? Maybe not, but I saw the team in '89 nearly win a division with second-division ability. That says something.

The weird thing about the Orioles is, if someone told you that, at the end of April, Cal Ripken would be leading the league in RBI and that Dwight Evans would be hitting .300 as the everyday right fielder, you would have to figure that the Orioles were in great shape. What you couldn't count on is that Randy Milligan, NTC Craig Worthington, Bill Ripken, Mike Devereaux, Brady Anderson, a bunch of catchers -- please, can I stop? -- wouldn't hit at all. And that the Orioles can't get two well-pitched games in a row.

And so, I get letters, and I assume Robinson does, too, filled with helpful hints. Like moving Cal to third base and playing Juan Bell at short. Didn't they already try that? Trading Worthington (they've tried). Making Mike Flanagan, who hasn't had a winning season since 1983, a starter again even though he has been spectacular in the bullpen.

Face it, folks, the Orioles have a number of problems that are only compounded by the absence of Glenn Davis, starting with the fact that there are still remarkably few proven players on a team people want to consider a contender. But, things will get better. Most of the guys who aren't hitting will eventually start to hit, and the pitching will improve. The Orioles will not finish last, but they may not finish in the running, either.

In the meantime, Robinson is going to take his lumps. The thing I like about Robinson, who used to be known for his temper, is that he's taking them with such remarkable good humor.

"I don't let this stuff get to me," he was saying. After which he grabbed the bottle of Rolaids that is always on his desk and gobbled down a handful.

Robinson's record as a manager

7-Team. . . .. Year. . . W-L. . .Pct.. . .Fin.

Cleveland. . 1975. . . 79-80. .497. . . 4th

Cleveland. . 1976. . . 81-78. .509. . . 4th

Cleveland. . 1977. . . 26-31. .456. . ... x

Rochester. . 1978. . . 58-64. .475. . . 6th

San Fran. .. 1981. . . 56-55...505. . . . y

San Fran. . .1982. . . 87-75. .537. . . 3rd

San Fran. . .1983. . . 79-83. .488. . ..5th

San Fran. . .1984. . . 42-64. .396. . . 6th

Baltimore. . 1988. . . 54-101. 348. . . 7th

Baltimore. . 1989. . . 87-75. .537. . . 2nd

Baltimore. . 1990. ... 76-85. .472. . . 5th

z-Baltimore. 1991. . .. 8-12...400. .. 6th

x-fired in midseason

y -- strike year; finished 5th in first half, 3rd in second half

z -- through Friday

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