Frank Robin­son did it his way

He was the proud­est, orner­i­est, most com­pet­i­tive man in Ma­jor League Base­ball

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Perspectives - Thomas Boswell Thomas Boswell is a sports colum­nist for The Washington Post.

For sev­eral days, the death of Frank Robin­son had been ex­pected. Ed­i­tors called re­porters to pre­pare ap­pre­ci­a­tions. But Frank, no re­specter of dead­lines or demise, didn’t de­part on sched­ule. Some of us who cov­ered him for years en­joyed the thought of Death try­ing to cope with Frank.

Robin­son was the proud­est, orner­i­est, most com­pet­i­tive man in base­ball from his ar­rival in 1956 — as a rookie who hit 38 homers at age 20 — un­til 2006, when, in his 16th year as a man­ager, his old fierce eyes still made his Nats play­ers seem tame.

“You know you can’t beat me,” says the Grim Reaper. Frank, silent, just glares and digs in. Robin­son didn’t just crowd the plate; he crowded life.

On Thurs­day, Robin­son passed away at 83. Many will re­call his Triple Crown sea­son lead­ing the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles to a World Series ti­tle in 1966. Oth­ers will find the most last­ing value in his dig­ni­fied bar­rier-break­ing work as the first African-Amer­i­can man­ager in 1975 with Cleve­land and then as man­ager of the year back with the Ori­oles in 1989.

Washington fans will re­mem­ber Robin­son’s fiery lead­er­ship of the 2005 Na­tion­als, D.C.’s first team af­ter a 33-year wait. They were sup­posed to be aw­ful. Robin­son re­fused to al­low it. They were in first place at the All-Star break, in con­tention in Septem­ber and weren’t losers — they fin­ished 8181. Once, Robin­son, al­most 70, pushed through a melee try­ing to punch tough-guy An­gels man­ager Mike Scios­cia. With big fists and an up­per body that re­called a 541-foot homer he hit out of Me­mo­rial Sta­dium, Robin­son truly wanted a piece of Scios­cia.

But Robin­son had other sides be­yond the need to in­tim­i­date op­po­nents or drive team­mates to their com­pet­i­tive lim­its or re­spond to any chal­lenge with flash­ing eyes, a smart, quick tongue and, if nec­es­sary, his fists.

In 1988, af­ter the Ori­oles started the sea­son 0-6, Robin­son re­placed Cal Rip­ken Sr. as man­ager. When their record reached 0-20, the whole sports na­tion watched, aghast and em­pa­thetic. Long be­fore the 21st game, Frank sat alone in his of­fice. I handed him a lapel but­ton that read, “It’s Been Lovely, but I Have to Scream Now.”

He burst out laugh­ing. And put the but­ton in his top drawer.

A few years ear­lier, Frank and I had bro­ken the ice when he was a coach on Earl Weaver’s staff. One day, I wrote that the Nos. 1-23 hit­ters in the Ori­oles’ or­der should all be benched.

“Fire­men go into burn­ing build­ings for $10,000 a year,” I said. “For $1 mil­lion, Fred Lynn won’t pinch-hit with the bases loaded in Yan­kee Sta­dium if he has a cold.”

The next day, Lynn stopped talk­ing to the me­dia but also im­me­di­ately got red-hot and won the Amer­i­can League player of the week award. A few days later, Robin­son said, “Could you rip Fred­die again next week?”

These days, the no­tion that a man­ager can lead a team, and add to its win to­tal, through the force of a scary-in­tense per­son­al­ity, through anger as well as in­spi­ra­tion, through stop-be­ing-a-dog crit­i­cism is treated as a silly, ir­ra­tional anachro­nism. Do they do that in mid­dle-man­age­ment at Ap­ple?

That’s wrong. I cov­ered two Robin­son teams that fin­ished 20 to 30 games bet­ter than MLB ex­perts thought they should. There were many rea­sons, but none big­ger than Frank’s back-of-the-plane to top-step-of-the-dugout lead­er­ship.

The 1988 Ori­oles started 0-21 and ended 54-107. But they im­proved the next sea­son by 31 1/2 games and missed the post­sea­son only on the last week­end of the sea­son. They were a six-month na­tional story. At that time, just two teams had ever im­proved by more games.

Robin­son’s lead­er­ship — no­body can de­fine it or mea­sure it, which is why few cur­rently value it — was es­sen­tial. He be­lieved in play­ers who, ob­jec­tively, did not merit it. So they be­lieved in them­selves. Some, such as Steve Fin­ley, panned out as stars. Oth­ers, such as Curt Schilling — who tried out pur­ple hair, looked like Billy Idol and when called in from the bullpen once said, “So, who’s up?” — weren’t Frank’s guys.

They crashed walls, stole bases and threw strikes. But most of all, they loved the end­less de­tails of the game, stud­ied them, revered them as Robin­son did and be­liev­ing that de­mand­ing un­fail­ing fun­da­men­tals from each other would win.

Per­haps the les­son should be: An­a­lyt­ics are great, but lead­er­ship is real, too. Ask the mil­i­tary acad­e­mies whether they be­lieve it’s all just num­bers.

Be­cause Robin­son could be so can­tan­ker­ous and didn’t care what you thought, he was ex­cit­ing to cover. He grasped the con­cept of an “ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ship” with the press. That didn’t mean he liked it. Once, af­ter I crit­i­cized his man­ag­ing, he made a sweep­ing ges­ture of stab­bing him­self in the back as he passed me. And he wasn’t smil­ing.

When I was grow­ing up, Bill Rus­sell of the Bos­ton Celtics be­came the first African-Amer­i­can coach in any ma­jor U.S. pro sport. Eight years later, Robin­son, who was Rus­sell’s bas­ket­ball team­mate at McC­ly­monds High School in Oak­land, Calif., broke the man­ag­ing color bar­rier in Ma­jor League Base­ball. That two close friends could face chal­lenges so sim­i­lar with such dig­nity and hon­esty was im­pres­sive. But that they did it so un­com­pro­mis­ingly, never turn­ing away from the first-hand hard truths they’d learned about race in Amer­ica, made them two of my he­roes.

For me, Rus­sell and Robin­son were the next step af­ter Jackie Robin­son. Be­cause he’d laid the ground­work, they didn’t have to turn the other cheek. They could be their en­tire selves — or close to it. Re­mem­ber­ing what so­cial progress looked like then is a re­minder why it’s worth bat­tling to keep and ex­tend now.

Frank Robin­son al­ways had the se­vere com­port­ment, the hard eye for en­e­mies, the ba­sic sense of right and wrong, of a pi­o­neer. He walked into a room and oth­ers stood up straighter, heads higher. Now, we bow our heads in re­spect.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

Frank Robin­son

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