Robinson's tears are anything but sad

May 27, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

One could take a jarring sight - Frank Robinson, the ultimate old-school, tough-as-leather, spikes-high baseball guy, fighting back tears because he had to yank his catcher in mid-inning - and overanalyze it and apply texture and meaning to an incident that might not mean anything beyond what it was.

Or, one could take the cheap, easy route. The way that catcher was throwing, how did Robinson keep from bawling right there in the dugout, instead of after the game?

But wisecracks like that - certainly more clever ones than that - are exactly what made Robinson struggle with removing Matthew LeCroy, the third-string catcher getting an extremely rare start, on Thursday afternoon at RFK Stadium, after seven stolen bases by the Astros and two horrible throws to second base.

The thought process behind Robinson's post-game purge explains why he gets a pass on the "no-crying-in-baseball" law, and why he's exempt from any description of him as "soft."

It all tells, again, why Robinson, approaching his 71st birthday, is the right manager at the right time for the Nationals, and why the next thing the new ownership group should do - after finding some catching depth - is assure Robinson that he can stay in the job until he's good and ready to leave.

Still, none of that dulls the shock of seeing Robby so worked up after that game, explaining why it was so hard on him and on LeCroy, and how he hoped neither LeCroy nor the fans took it the wrong way. It was the talk of baseball all over the country, but especially in the two cities bound by his presence.

People who have been around, or at least seen, Robinson his entire career in baseball couldn't believe it. There are people who have seen him at his lowest moments - when the Orioles let him go from the front office in 1995, for example - who had seen him emotional, and were still flabbergasted at Thursday's events.

But we shouldn't be that stunned. Not that one conversation can sum up a Hall of Fame player and longtime manager's entire professional life, but when he was talking in the dugout the day before - when among the many topics touched upon was Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth - he showed the characteristics of a man easily capable of such emotion.

Yes, he's tough. But to listen to him talk the way he had Wednesday - about Aaron and the players of their generation, about what he thinks is right and wrong about baseball, about young players, about leadership, about his own players, about the future of the team in Washington, about his own future - is to hear a man with an uncommonly strong sense of conviction, loyalty, history and commitment. And a man who respects the game and its players as much as anyone who has ever suited up in the majors.

So it would stand to reason that when Robinson had to make the exceedingly rare change of a position player, particularly a catcher, in mid-inning, he would truly be empathetic to LeCroy, sympathetic to his feelings, and deeply concerned about how it would reflect on the player, on him and on the organization.

With all of that in mind, how coldhearted would a manager be if he didn't shed a tear while explaining it publicly?

A manager who weeps for his players is a manager who has his players' backs. Ever wonder why football players get so attached to Dick Vermeil? He's an extreme example, but you have to figure the Nationals will keep gutting it out for Robinson now, no matter how overmatched they continue to be.

Robinson didn't ask for what baseball dumped in his lap five days before spring training opened in 2002, post-takeover of the Expos and mid-contraction talk. Tired of seeing him cry? Ask him about the road trips to "home" games in Puerto Rico that kept the 'Spos away from Montreal for weeks at a time, then wonder why he doesn't cry 24-7. That, he laughs about. Now.

On Wednesday, the new owners showed up to meet and greet the players and management, soon-to-be team president Stan Kasten spent the day and evening walking around RFK and inspecting the game-night operation - and Robinson managed the game in a dugout that stank from a broken sewer line behind the back wall.

"This," he joked before the game, "is where new owners can make an impact."

The tears came barely 24 hours later. But - and this is not insignificant - they came after a win, the Nationals' fifth in six games, their best stretch in a season in which they've generally been separated from the basement only by the Triple-A Marlins.

Most managers in Robinson's position would have pulled an Adam Morrison long ago - or would have been gone, figuring a major league manager's job wasn't worth this.

Instead, Robinson has stuck around, and now weeps for his players.

They, and all of us, should be weeping for him.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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