Bargain-basement team gave Robinson poor shot

JOHN EISENBERG

May 24, 1991|By JOHN EISEBBERG

The Orioles gave Frank Robinson a team with the second-lowest payroll in the major leagues. They gave him starting pitchers who can't get out of the second inning. They gave him a team that was relying on a big hitter who went down with an injury.

They gave him the cheapest passable team, then they fired him yesterday because, essentially, he couldn't get a slow horse to run fast. It is wrong. All wrong. It is a response that is panicky and cliched and, most importantly, irrelevant.

Robinson was not the Orioles' problem. No, he isn't the best manager in history. No, he has never won a division title. But he wasn't the problem. The players are the problem. They aren't pitching or hitting very well. Tends to get in the way.

Let's boil this down to basics: The owner doesn't want to spend money on players, so the manager got fired. Beautiful.

Maybe you fire the manager if you give him big talent and he loses. The Orioles did not.

The Orioles gave Robinson a team that needed big, big years from Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki, whose combined record since the start of last season is 10-26.

The Orioles gave Robinson a team that needed big things from a 39-year-old free agent with a history of back problems.

The Orioles gave Robinson a team that couldn't afford to have one important player get injured or fail to live up to billing. That's an impossible situation. Life just isn't perfect.

So Ballard is 2-6, and Milacki can't even make the team in the spring, and Dave Johnson blows up, and Ben McDonald suddenly is grooving fastballs, and Randy Milligan can't get a hit, and there are sub-.200 averages everywhere, and a couple of players get injured because life isn't perfect, and presto, off goes the manager's head.

Beautiful. Welcome to Mariners-land. Fire the manager because a team in such a sorry condition is losing? Why not show a little more intelligence than that? Why not investigate why the team is losing? A confident front office would. A scared front office resorts to the easy play. The grandstand play.

Of course, we have known for awhile now that the Orioles are no longer one of baseball's best franchises, that the legendary Oriole Way is merely a piece of history. But here is news that really drives home how far the franchise has sunk.

Not only do they blow the play, they take one of the best players in their franchise's history, if not the single best, and handle his ouster as they might that of a trouble-making rookie. There wasn't an ounce of grace in this.

It says in Robinson's contract that he becomes an assistant general manager if he gets kicked upstairs. The Orioles have asked him to do some scouting, which is a long way from assistant general manager. How's that for loyalty?

Meanwhile, Roland Hemond and Larry Lucchino stood up in a news conference yesterday and went on and on about Robinson's "unmatched contribution," and how it would continue. When pressed, they said they hadn't defined his front-office role yet. They'd been talking about firing him for two weeks, but hadn't figured out what to do with him. How's that for loyalty?

"I wasn't reassigned, I was fired," Robinson said.

This is panic. This is the front office saying "we have to look like we're doing something, even though there's not much we can do." This is indeed Mariners-land. This is a response that embarrasses the franchise's proud, patient tradition.

That's not meant as an insult to Robinson's replacement, Johnny Oates, who seems eager and capable. But Oates himself said yesterday, "My strategy won't be any better than Frank's." And Robinson, who likes Oates, said, "Don't expect Johnny to be a good manager if the talent on the field doesn't perform."

Amen.

That doesn't mean the Orioles won't start playing better. They will. That's the way baseball works. A season is a pendulum even for the worst teams. The Orioles are due to start swinging in the right direction. In fact, with the Yankees and Indians due in town, they'll probably start swinging that way immediately. But they would have with Robinson, too.

(Please note the timing. Hemond said he basically made up his mind to fire Robinson on Sunday, but he still let Robinson take the team to Detroit and lose two of three. Why not make the move when the decision was made Sunday? Here's why: to let Oates get off to a good start at home against the Yankees and Indians. A fair play?)

Anyway, when and if the Orioles do start playing better, please understand: it will happen because the starting pitchers begin lasting beyond the second inning, and because Davis gets better, and because the hitters stop striking out with men on base. And if all that doesn't happen . . .

"Johnny isn't a miracle worker," Robinson said.

No.

No one is.

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