Baseball's treatment of Robinson is crying shame

October 01, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

For the second time this season, Frank Robinson was moved to public tears. The first time, in May, after he had to bench an overmatched catcher in mid-inning, showed the depth of his humanity beneath that famously tough exterior.

The second time, on Thursday afternoon after a meeting with his Washington Nationals bosses, showed how much that humanity was worth to his employers.

There's something terribly, terribly wrong here. Nobody in baseball ought to be allowed to do anything to Frank Robinson to make him cry.

Still, be ready, because some hankies are getting soaked this afternoon down in D.C. -- if not Robinson's, then those belonging to thousands of fans at RFK Stadium and a good number at home. Today might be Robinson's last day in a baseball uniform, after 21 years as a major league player and 16 as a manager.

Every possible indication, short of actual words coming from the mouths of Nationals management, says that Robinson, who turned 71 in August, will not be asked back for a sixth year as manager of the Montreal Expos-then-Nationals franchise.

That was the word that came out of that Thursday meeting. Nothing official, mind you. After all, what has Frank Robinson done in the past half century for this sport to deserve that level of respect or accountability?

How proud the Baltimore-Washington area must be, to now have two franchises that each kicked this particular Hall of Famer to the curb.

Now, it's not as if Robinson won't be part of the Nationals organization in some capacity. It's just that he's having the job he appears to do best, managing, taken away as an option. He wants to do it. His players, keeping their chins up for him under the circumstances, want him to do it. Plus, Robinson will never run out of cracks about how it seems Jack McKeon wasn't too old for the Florida Marlins a few years ago, when he took them to a World Series title.

But Robinson's vote doesn't count, the players' votes don't count, and neither do the fans', no matter how much they embraced him as the familiar face of the franchise from the beginning. Maybe McKeon's vote would count, but probably not.

Robinson wants to stay on the bench; the emotions that he couldn't suppress when he spoke after last week's meeting made that clear. One could make a case that at this point in his career and in his life, he ought to be allowed to call his own shots about when he ends his managerial tenure.

No one needs to be reminded of the immense favor he did when the commissioner called on him to take on what might have been the worst, longest-lasting managerial job ever -- for an Expos team abandoned by its owner, taken over by the other owners, ticketed for contraction, frozen out by its once-loyal Canadian fans, shipped to a city being held hostage by the owner up the parkway, sentenced to an obsolete stadium and dangled ownerless for another year and a half.

There might have been someone who could have done a better job and gotten his players to rally behind him better -- but we'll never know. Robinson might have worked miracles with new, free-spending local ownership and a new ballpark on the horizon -- but we'll never know that, either.

One more thing that wasn't clear as the final weekend of the baseball season began: whether the Nationals, or anybody, were going to give Robinson a proper send-off and not leave it up to the fans to work up something on the fly this afternoon. Maybe the new bosses knew. If they did, they didn't tell the supposed guest of honor, which tells you that their definition of "honor" might not be the same as everyone else's.

Of course, once upon a time, about a decade ago, Robinson wanted to stay in the Orioles' front office, but that didn't mean that much to his employers then, either. Not much of a proper send-off then, either. As with his current team, he's not holding his breath on ever rejoining them.

A better man has never been unceremoniously booted from more jobs in such close proximity to each other.

A man who served as baseball's conscience during times when its moral compass frequently went astray deserves a place in the game. Not a ceremonial position with some window-dressing title. He doesn't want to be a community ambassador. He wants to be the guy waving in relievers, double switching, glaring threateningly at Mike Scioscia, telling people off who need to be told off, calling baseball out when it needs to be.

Frank Robinson is one of the most important figures baseball has ever been blessed to have.

Too bad that once again, he's not being treated that way. It's enough to make a tough man cry.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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