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Robinson did three managerial stints himself before stepping out of the dugout to serve as an assistant G.M. with the Orioles. After a 10-year hiatus he returned to managing in 2002, when Major League Baseball took over the Montreal Expos and Robinson, then baseball's dean of discipline, was asked by Bud Selig to run the club. Robinson took the job in part because he, like Selig, feels the public should see more blacks in baseball's most visible positions. But the main reason was this: Robinson has a fierce need to compete and to see the game played properly. Some people think he's back for a fourth year because, with the Expos migrating to Washington, his old Frenchy club will now play outside, on grass, in front of actual fans--and Americans at that. Nothing of the sort. Robinson would manage underground in Anchorage if there were a big league job in it. He's back because he rediscovered in Montreal that baseball is what he does. He has no retirement plan.
His friend Vada Pinson was the same way. For a long while Pinson's life was unfolding about the same way as Robinson's. Pinson, like Robinson, grew up in Oakland. He was three years behind Robinson at McClymonds High, and he, too, was signed by the Reds. Pinson and Robinson, two of the few black players for Cincinnati in the early 1960s, were roommates. When Pinson's 18-year playing career ended in '75--the same year Robinson became baseball's first black manager, for the Indians--he stayed in baseball as a coach. Pinson worked for a handful of teams and after the '94 season was fired by the Florida Marlins. Nobody hired him for the '95 season, and that year, during the playoffs, he had a stroke and died. He was 57.
"My father wanted more out of the game than the game was willing to give him," Vada Pinson III says. "He wanted to manage." The namesake son is the manager of a Longs Drugs in Oakland. "He loved baseball, loved it to death. If he were alive, he'd tell Frank to stay in the game until the day he drops."
That's exactly what Robinson plans to do. "I'd like to manage another four or five years," he says, sitting in his windowless basement spring training office. On a nearby clothes rack are his virginal Nationals uniforms. "After that I want to go upstairs, be a general manager, team president--something. They can take me out in a box." If you ever need a definition of baseball lifer, there it is.
robinson's contract with the Nationals is for this season only, as Major League Baseball looks for a buyer for the club. There's one of those public-private campaigns, mired in politics, to build a new ballpark in Washington, but the Nationals will be at RFK for at least three years. Like the Expos before them, the Nationals must try to keep up with their National League East rivals, the Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, who all have marquee players and we-expect-to-contend attitudes. The modest Nats have righthander Livan Hernandez, second baseman Jose Vidro and ... Robinson.
Still, the Expos in recent years have been, amazingly, semicompetitive, and these Nationals may be too. The attitude, regardless, is good. On the day pitchers and catchers reported to Space Coast, Robinson had his first meeting with his coaches. It lasted more than two hours, and all you could hear through the cinder-block walls were peals of laughter every 15 minutes or so. Another season was under way.
Robinson's wife, Barbara, has been trying to remember the name of a French restaurant in D.C. that she and Frank used to like in their Baltimore days, but the only thing about Washington that seems to excite Robinson is the hope of playing golf at the Congressional Country Club, a U.S. Open course in the Maryland suburbs, and the prospect of getting District of Columbia kids, many stuck at schools with the poorest performance records in the nation, interested in a game they barely know. One fourth of the 16 public high schools in D.C. do not even have baseball teams. There are neighborhood baseball diamonds that have been dormant for years and are choked with weeds. In the suburban colonies 10 miles away, summer baseball leagues are thriving, but within the District there's little going on: few coaches, bare budgets, limited interest. The lack of a big league club since 1971, when the Washington Senators folded their tents, has been part of the problem.
Going on the public school lecture circuit will not be drudgery for Robinson, who has a grown son and daughter. He has a way with children. "When my son Jon, who's a Down syndrome guy, was young," George Will says, "I'd take him to the Orioles games, and Frank was so great with him." Robinson would bring Jon into the clubhouse and let him hang out in the hours before a game. Robinson likes kids; it's adults he can take or leave. When Barbara announces their Saturday-night dinner partners, Robinson will sometimes say, "I ain't going with them--they're old."
Robinson appreciates the gift children have for simplicity. He tries to operate the same way. He knows the world is complicated enough. "Give me kids in a captive audience, I can get them to baseball," he says. "The game's still great. They just have to be exposed to it." Then, if all goes right, one generation introduces baseball to the next. Old Bush, as Charles Barkley calls 41, taught it to young Bush; Vada Pinson Jr. taught it to Vada III, the star of his high school team; Frank Robinson taught it to his kids, Kevin and Nichelle.
Baseball is multigenerational; the present-day game is always linked to its past. Robinson has credited his success in baseball after he turned 30 to one man, Bill DeWitt, the owner and general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, who traded him to Baltimore after the '65 season. The trade worked out ideally for Robinson. Earl Weaver's Orioles, with Robinson batting third, became one of baseball's iconic teams. Still, DeWitt rejected Robinson, turned the game into a business for him, and for that reason the man sticks in Robinson's craw to this day. For a long while all Robinson wanted to do was prove DeWitt wrong. "He said I was 'an old 30,'" Robinson said the other day. "I'm still trying to figure out what he meant." The real unanswered question for Robinson is if, or how, his race figured into the trade.