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Phil Taylor
July 29, 2002
As mounting pressure—and losses—sparked rumors of his departure, Expos manager Frank Robinson started to show that familiar fire
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July 29, 2002

The Heat Is On

As mounting pressure—and losses—sparked rumors of his departure, Expos manager Frank Robinson started to show that familiar fire

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People used to call him angry, and he didn't dispute that Didn't even mind it, really. You would have been angry, too, if you had been a black ballplayer whose career began in the 1950s. You would have had the same rage inside if you had sat on the bus as a minor leaguer waiting for your white teammates to bring you food from the restaurants that wouldn't serve you, or if you had led the Cincinnati Reds to the National League title in 1961 only to have a nightclub owner who didn't recognize you block the entrance to the team's pennant-clinching party and tell you his establishment didn't allow Negroes. Angry? Frank Robinson would have been a fool to not be angry.

It actually irritates him more when people say he has mellowed, because he doesn't think that's accurate. Robinson, the Montreal Expos' manager, has always hated it when someone doesn't take the time to get things right. "I haven't mellowed," he says. "I don't really like that word. I've adjusted. There's a difference." The difference is that the anger, the passion, the competitiveness—the heat-is still there. That much was evident last week, a tumultuous one for the Expos that included a tearful Robinson addressing the media after a heartbreaking loss, dugout fireworks that precipitated a closed-door clubhouse meeting and rumors of the manager's imminent resignation or dismissal.

Yes, the fire still burns, but Robinson controls the heat better than he once did. At 66 he realizes that he cannot be the angry young man any longer, that as a man moves into middle age and beyond he has to learn to control his inner flame.

Robinson can do that now, at least most of the time. He's still enough of a baseball conservative, a believer in the values he grew up with in the game—not fraternizing with opponents, a manager's right to discipline a player as he sees fit—that Montreal general manager Omar Minaya jokingly calls him Clarence Thomas. But Robinson is more diplomatic than he was as a player, less rigid than he once was as a manager. When he met general manager Al Campanis after being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972, Campanis gave him a booklet, The Dodger Way to Play Baseball. Robinson dropped the booklet on the G.M.'s desk without opening it. "Excuse me, Mr. Campanis," he said, "but if I don't know how to play baseball by now, after 16 years in the major leagues, I never will."

You can still feel the heat coming from Robinson, the desire to run not just a 25-man roster but an entire organization as a team president, the need to blaze a trail for minorities in the front office the same way he did in the manager's office. When you feel that heat, it's easy to understand why last winter Robinson left his job in the commissioner's office overseeing on-field operations to become the Expos' manager. It's even easier to understand why he sits now in a spartan manager's office in Olympic Stadium—a ballpark so sparsely filled during games that its upper deck could be used for storage—instead of at his home in Bel Air, Calif., where he could have spent this year golfing every day, enjoying his season tickets to his beloved Los Angeles Lakers and playing the role of Hall of Famer at leisure. Heat like Robinson's can't be released at the 19th hole or in courtside seats.

When Major League Baseball bought the Expos in February, allowing Montreal owner Jeffrey Loria to purchase the Florida Marlins, commissioner Bud Selig asked if Robinson would be interested in managing the club. After a few days' thought Robinson accepted. It was odd, in a way, to see a former player of his stature, a man with 586 career home runs, two World Series rings with the Baltimore Orioles and MVP awards from both leagues, take what amounted to a temp job: caretaker for a year until the franchise's future could be decided. But in one sense the Expos and Robinson seemed perfect for each other—a man with so much heat inside him trying to revive an organization so close to death that its body was nearly cold. The result has been one of the more uplifting stories of a largely disheartening baseball season. With the twin blades of contraction or relocation poised to drop on Montreal after the season, the Expos have not only remained competitive, but they have also retooled for a run at the postseason.

A pair of mid-season trades brought Montreal an ace, Cleveland Indians righthander Bartolo Colon, and a bat, Marlins leftfielder Cliff Floyd, and although catching the first-place Atlanta Braves in the NL East remains a long shot, a wild-card berth is not. Through Sunday, the Expos were 49-49, 14� games behind Atlanta and seven behind the Dodgers in the wild-card race. "I hope it won't sound like I have too much of an ego to say I felt that I was the right man for this job," Robinson says. "I thought that maybe I could get the kind of baseball out of these guys that they're capable of. They're not there yet, but they're getting closer."

Robinson has a talented core of players, most notably All-Star starters Vladimir Guerrero in right-field and Jose Vidro at second base, both of whom generally listen well and play hard. On the rare occasions when they don't, Robinson usually turns to Minaya, the Expos' 43-year-old CM., to blow off steam. "He's been great with the players, and they've been receptive to him," says Minaya. "There have been a few times when he's been very, very upset with a player, but Frank's professional enough to know how to address it." Robinson has also learned enough from his previous managerial jobs—with Cleveland (1975 to '77), where he became the majors' first black manager; the San Francisco Giants ('81 to '84) and the Orioles ('88 to '91)—to know when not to address it. "There was a time when every time a player made a mistake, he could expect to see me right then, before the game was over, wanting to know why," Robinson says. "But now I realize that sometimes it's best to just let it go."

By week's end, though, after being swept in three games at Florida (a series in which they scored a total of two runs), the Expos had lost eight of 11, and Robinson was finding it harder to let mistakes go—his players' or his own. On July 15 Montreal held an 8-3 lead over the Philadelphia Phillies going into the ninth inning. Expos reliever Jim Brower had thrown three strong innings, and Robinson sent him out to begin the ninth. Brower surrendered three runs before Robinson pulled him. Montreal's shaky bullpen then gave up five more runs in the inning, and the Expos lost 11-8. Afterward Robinson sat behind the desk in his office surrounded by reporters, blaming himself. "I'll take this one, fellas," he said, biting his bottom lip. "Put this one on me." As he spoke, his eyes welled up and a tear ran down his cheek.

The following night the Expos lost to the Phils again, 6-3, when they were unable to recover from the control problems of starter Tony Armas Jr. The 24-year-old righthander walked five and threw three wild pitches, and Montreal was in a 5-1 hole when he was removed after 3? innings. A frustrated Armas left the mound before Robinson arrived, a major breach of protocol in the manager's book. Before Armas hit the showers, Robinson gave him a stern lecture in the dugout. The manager also had words for the entire team after the game, and the clubhouse stayed closed for nearly half an hour. Robinson huddled with Minaya after that, leading to speculation that he was about to resign or be fired. "I hate losing," Robinson said after the meetings. "I think I take it harder than the players sometimes." But both Robinson and Minaya dismissed the possibility of a managerial change and denied published reports that Minaya had to talk Robinson out of quitting. "I remain as committed to this job as Eve ever been," Robinson said the following day. "I have every intention of finishing the season."

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