Robby not one to pamper

Ken Rosenthal

May 24, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

First things first: It had to happen. Frank Robinson lost his grip on the Orioles, and no amount of finger-pointing can dismiss that fact. The issue is not the front office. Nor is it the club's inept play. No, the issue is the man himself, and the pampered athletes he could never understand.

Robinson, 55, tempered his volatile personality, but it still wasn't enough. The current Orioles knew nothing of his stormy tenures in Cleveland and San Francisco. They didn't appreciate the "New Frank" -- far more relaxed, infinitely more patient and funny enough to appear on Bill Cosby.

In the end, they wanted more, always more, far more than Robinson could provide. He was a Hall of Fame player, a fierce competitor, a among major-league managers? Because they recognize that today's players need constant reassurance and praise -- sort of like third-graders.

"I really feel they're more fragile. They need more stroking. They're less secure -- even though they're making more money than ever before," said Oates, who guided Triple A Rochester to the International League title in 1988 and became the Orioles' first-base coach in '89.

"As a coach, you're like their buffer. They sit one game and ask, 'What did I do wrong?' All these questions go through their mind.

"As a manager sometimes you can eliminate them -- whether they're real, necessary or unnecessary. It doesn't cost me anything to sit down with them. What's a few minutes?"

The surprising thing is, Robinson doesn't necessarily disagree -- it's just that he couldn't bring himself to make clubhouse rounds each day, playing baseball psychiatrist.

This wasn't simply a generation gap. Robinson was so accomplished, so imposing a figure, his aura got in the way.

Oates, 45, is a former major-league catcher who hit 14 homers to Robinson's 586. Even he admitted, "I was intimidated by the man, not for something he did [as manager], but for who he was, what he had done in this game. Sometimes I did not want to suggest things. Why? Because this guy's done it all."

In 1989 none of this was a problem; many of the young Orioles were so hungry, they did not require an extra push.

But after contending until the final weekend, the players grew too comfortable, thinking they had arrived.

It was a critical moment for Robinson. Yet he continued running the club in his detached style. Like a CEO.

The grumbling began in earnest last season, always in hushed tones, always in private. Robinson certainly was not to blame when injuries ruined the Orioles' title chances in August. But when the club showed no interest in saving his job the first eight weeks of this season, it clearly was time for a change.

A manager isn't fired for making the wrong pitching moves, writing the wrong lineups, losing the wrong games. He's fired when his team's play virtually demands a different tone, a fresh approach. The Orioles weren't just 13-24 and 9 1/2 games back. They were getting blown out every other night.

Not every player disliked Robinson; one said he understood why a former slugger would cringe at hitters swinging repeatedly at forkballs in the dirt, as the Orioles did recently against California's Chuck Finley. The same player laid the blame on pitching coach Al Jackson and hitting instructor Tom McCraw, labeling them "yes" men.

Even team president Larry Lucchino conceded Robinson wasn't solely to blame. It would have helped if the front office addressed the club's glaring need for a veteran starting pitcher. It would have helped if the Orioles' injury list never included Glenn Davis or Ben McDonald. Still, this firing was as inevitable as Cal Ripken Sr.'s in 1988.

Not surprisingly, Oates said the main thing he will do different from Robinson is "be a little more accessible." He's not knocking the man who hired him as a coach, just facing facts. Indeed, maybe he can reach a happy medium with his players, like Oakland's Tony La Russa or Pittsburgh's Jim Leyland -- two other successful managers who weren't major-league stars.

In the coming weeks, the Orioles no doubt will embrace Oates as a "players' manager." They'll point to any revival as proof the change did them good. And they'll keep frowning when asked about Robinson, never imagining, not even for a minute, that his failure was their failure, too.

School's out for the third-graders.

Time to go out and play.

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