It was a rare moment for Frank Robinson. Although the subject under discussion was umpires, the Cleveland manager was actually smiling. Someone had just recalled the time Leo Durocher kicked Jocko Conlan in the shin guards, only to have Conlan kick him back. "Those were the good old days," Robinson said. "You kicked an umpire and he kicked you back. Now all they do is throw you out."
As much as he may have wanted to kick an umpire in his first year and a half as a manager, Robinson has not given in to the urge. Oh, he did shove Jerry Neudecker once, and that cost him $250 and a three-day suspension. Until a better opportunity comes along, the shove will have to do. But his failure to lay the toe of his spikes on an ump's epidermis notwithstanding, it is clear that Robinson does not get along with umpires very well.
With only three ejections in 19 years, Robinson never had much trouble as a player. That changed when he became baseball's first black manager. He has even said it was because he became the first black manager.
Robinson was run out of three games last year—and already has matched that number this season. American League umpires consider him a complainer, a constant arguer, a picker of nits. His feelings for them were made clear in Frank, a recently published diary of Robinson's first season as a manager: "By the nature of their job, umpires are dictators. If nobody is allowed to challenge their decisions, they soon begin to think that everything they call has to be correct, just because they have called it."
Midway through last season, Robinson resolved to muzzle himself. It did not improve his reputation among the umpires (half of whom were steaming at the low ratings he gave them in an interview with Cleveland reporter Russ Schneider), but it did keep him from being thrown out of any more games. "I decided what's the use," he says. "It wasn't getting me anywhere. And I may have been hurting the team more than I was helping it." Perhaps coincidentally, the Indians began playing much better and, with a 47-39 record over the last three months of the season, finished only one game below .500.
Robinson seemed repentant in spring training this year. "The most important thing I had to learn was patience," he said. "I think I took some of my impatience out on the umpires, but I've learned to live and let live. I know I can't be out there arguing about every little penny-ante thing. But when it's important, I'll be out there."
True to his word, Robinson has generally been cooling it this season, and his improving young Indians were one game over .500 at the end of last week. Excellent pitching, especially by the bullpen led by Lefthander Dave LaRoche, has boosted the team from fourth, where it finished a year ago, to second, nine games behind New York. And Robinson, whose managing talents were already drawing quiet compliments from baseball's insiders at the end of last season, now is gaining recognition as one of the game's best teacher-strategists. Everything would seem to be progressing very nicely except for the development of—uh, oh—more umpire trouble. Unlike last season, it is not merely Robinson vs. all the arbiters; now it is Robinson and his players and coaches vs. the four-man crew of Lou DiMuro, Richie Garcia, Bill Kunkel and David Phillips.
Cleveland has won eight of the 15 games the DiMuro crew has worked this year—no gripe there. What upsets Robinson is that 12 of his team's 13 ejections occurred in six of the games those four umpired. Ironically, Robinson considers three of them to be among the better umpires in the league. He calls crew chief DiMuro one of the worst—but it is the other three who have made all the ejections.
The Cleveland front office has reacted strongly. Referring to the "Prussian-like attitude" of the four umpires, General Manager Phil Seghi a month ago requested that they not be assigned to any more Indians games. When the league refused to cancel an assignment for the DiMuro crew to work an Indians-Rangers series in Texas, President Ted Bonda erupted, "There is no doubt in my mind they have a psychological malice against our team." Robinson ordered a $100-a-word fine for any player or coach who said anything to the umpires. He would break the silence himself, he said, only if a rules question arose. The two games were played without incident, Cleveland winning one, but the Indians felt they were put in an unfair position.
"It makes it tough when you can't get a gripe off your chest," says Third Baseman Buddy Bell, the team's leading hitter with a .315 average and one of six players to be tossed out this year. (The other ejectees were Robinson and two of his coaches.) "It's gotten so you can't even have a normal conversation with those guys. If you say anything at all they act like you're trying to show them up and they throw you out. Normally, they are a good crew, but so much has happened, it's hard to be objective anymore."