Over the hill at 36? Sosa can use F. Robinson as age-old motivation

February 20, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

VIERA, Fla. - Hall of Famer Frank Robinson knows something about being over the hill.

There were people who thought he was past his prime when he was traded to the Orioles for pitcher Milt Pappas before the 1966 season. He was 30, and turning 30 was considered the beginning of the end for a ballplayer in those days.

Of course, we all know what happened after that. Robinson won the Triple Crown in his first season with the Orioles, and the team won its first World Series title. He would be the centerpiece of one of the dominant American League teams of his generation for several more years and remain an effective player until he was 40.

Why is this relevant?

Because the same kind of things that were being said about Robinson all those years ago are being said about 36-year-old superstar Sammy Sosa as he prepares to make his entrance at Orioles spring training camp.

He's past his prime. His numbers have been in decline for several years. He's too high-maintenance. And those are just the things they're saying out loud.

"He may be past his prime," Robinson said, "but what does he bring to the table? He still brings a pretty good game to the table. Is he going to hit 60 home runs again? Probably not, but what's wrong with 35 or 40? He can have a damn good year."

The subject touches a nerve for Robinson, though he was one of the rare players who was able to decide for himself when enough was enough. He was player/manager of the Cleveland Indians when he decided to retire as a player in 1976. If you're keeping score, that was a full decade after he supposedly passed his prime.

"We have a tendency to put age on things and put limits on people," Robinson said.

No one actually said anything to his face back in 1966, but he knew what everyone was thinking, and he was determined to prove them wrong.

"Yeah, I wanted to prove to the Baltimore fans that they were getting a good ballplayer," Robinson said. "I didn't have to prove anything to myself or the city that I left."

Sosa is getting it from both directions. He left Chicago under a cloud of disapproval after an injury-marred season in which he feuded with popular manager Dusty Baker and walked out early on the last game. But no one is more hungry for fan affection than Sosa, so there should be no question about his motivation.

Robinson is as old-school as you can get, but he chuckles when he hears all the talk about Sosa's diva tendencies. Sammy caused some consternation with his choice of CDs (Whitney Houston) in the clubhouse, but nobody seemed to mind his bland musical taste when he was hitting 243 home runs over a four-year span from 1998 to 2001.

"When you put up numbers like that," Robinson said, "that's when you can put up with it."

In other words, if Sosa can put together one more big Sammy season, manager Lee Mazzilli ought to bring in Houston to perform live in the Orioles' clubhouse.

The Washington Nationals aren't exactly loaded with star power, but Robinson could have his hands full with newly acquired outfielder Jose Guillen, who needed just one season to wear out his welcome in Anaheim.

Guillen's volatile personality and inability to get along with nice-guy manager Mike Scioscia forced the Angels to deal him to the Nationals. Robinson said Thursday that he doesn't expect any problems, but that doesn't mean he will be cutting Guillen more slack.

"I'll sit down and chat with him and let him know what I expect of him," Robinson said. "I want him to know how I want him to conduct himself.

"Each individual is different. Each individual reacts differently to different things. I never threw a helmet. I never threw a bat in disgust. I never tore up a clubhouse. I never did that, and I don't know what that proves. I don't allow that, and I don't want it. I like people to show emotion, but keep control of their emotions."

It may take some time, but Robinson thinks the Nationals and Orioles can develop a regional rivalry that is a good marketing and motivational tool for both teams.

"The one who has the most success, that's the one that should get the most space on the sports pages," he said. "In time, hopefully, the Orioles will take the place of the Blue Jays [as the Nationals' designated interleague rival], and we'll be able to play on a yearly basis. That will develop a rivalry."

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