I’ve talked often about the gifts this job has afforded me.
I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world for more than two decades. I’ve met larger-than-life sports legends and witnessed sports history firsthand.
But one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given was the privilege of covering and getting to know Frank Robinson, who passed away Thursday at the age of 83.
Robinson was baseball royalty, a Hall of Famer with talent (586 career home runs, 1,812 RBI, 2,943 hits, 1,829 runs scored), personality and character who had an impact wherever he went. From 1956 to 1965, he spent 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, including 1961, when he won a pennant and the National League Most Valuable Player (37 home runs, 124 RBI, and a .323 batting average).
There is a statue of Robinson outside the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.
He came to Baltimore in 1966 in one of the biggest trades in baseball history and went on that year to win the Triple Crown and American League MVP, leading the AL in home runs (49), RBI (122) and batting average (.316) and pacing the Orioles to a four-game sweep of Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1966 World Series. He and the Orioles won three more AL pennants and another World Series over the next five seasons.
There is a statue of Robinson at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Robinson became baseball’s first black manager when he became the player-manager of the Cleveland Indians in 1975.
There is a statue of Robinson in Heritage Park beyond the center-field stands at Progressive Field in Cleveland.
He was the first manager of the Washington Nationals when baseball returned to the nation’s capital with the relocated Montreal Expos in 2005. He helped win back baseball fans in the city with his presence and personality, while leading a team that competed for the NL East title into the final month of that first season in Washington. Robinson’s name is in the team’s Ring of Honor displayed at Nationals Park.
Robinson meant a lot to the game and meant a lot to the fans everywhere he went.
He was smart, funny, compassionate and competitive, and, even at the age of 70 here in Washington, we saw all of that.
We saw Robinson when he got Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly kicked out of game for pine tar on his glove before he ever threw a pitch and then nearly got into a fight with manager Mike Scioscia.
Then we saw Robinson in tears at a post-game press conference because he felt he embarrassed third-string catcher Matt LeCroy, pressed into action due to injuries, by pulling him off the field in the top of the seventh inning against the Houston Astros at RFK Stadium, after seven stolen bases by the Astros and two LeCroy throwing errors.
“I wasn’t trying to embarrass him in any way,” Robinson said, clearly upset. “It was just a move at the time, at that moment, I just felt like I had to do it for the good of the ballclub, to try to win that ballgame.
“It’s not LeCroy’s fault,” Robinson said. “We know his shortcomings. They took advantage of him today. That’s my responsibility. I put him in there … That’s on my shoulders.”
He used those shoulders in Washington to help a depleted, dysfunctional, orphaned franchise owned by Major League Baseball connect with fans here who had been deprived of their own team for 33 years. I watched him in spring training in Viera for two seasons sign autographs after workouts for every fan who waited in line for a chance to meet a baseball icon.
When he was not brought back by the Lerner family, who bought the franchise in 2006, Robinson left behind one final gift — his parting words in his final post-game press conference that should be gospel for every player who ever walks into that Nationals clubhouse:
“I’ve been very lucky, very fortunate and very appreciative of the opportunities that I’ve had to do the things that I enjoy doing. This is why I have always respected the game and tried to get others to appreciate and respect this game. This is the reason that I have wanted to stay in this game, because a lot of people helped me to get to where I am today and I’ve always tried to give back to this game. That’s what it is all about.
“Have I been hard on players? Yes, and I’ve been hard on them for a reason, and that was to try to get them to be the best they could possibly be. Set goals that are difficult to achieve, and when you achieve them you’ll know you really had an outstanding year.
“Don’t accept being OK or good in this game. Always strive to be the best that you possibly could be and take no less. If I didn’t feel like they were doing that, I was a little tough on them, yes, but for only that reason. Only that reason. I don’t think that is out of line. That’s just the way I am. Call me old school if you want to or whatever. I don’t think that is old school. I think that is the way it should be.
“The game is a great game, and if we respect it and do the right things for the game, that is what should be done. That is the way I have approached the game, and that is the way I always will. Old school. I have to laugh every time I hear that.”
It was a proclamation from baseball royalty, words backed up by deeds that built statues and brought honors to one of the greatest players the game of baseball has ever seen.
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