The washington nationals are now in session. They'll spend this month at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., a construction site of a town off I-95 that owes its life, in a roundabout way, to the man-on-the-moon ambitions of John F. Kennedy. Come April, the Nationals' home will be Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, a charmless multipurpose arena, named for JFK's attorney general and brother. The RFK cheap seats will go for seven bucks, and this summer the Nationals' icon of a manager, Frank Robinson, will go to District of Columbia--area schools, many of them so black you'd think the country still has legal segregation, to sell baseball to kids. It sounds like a line out of baseball's p.r. machine: Hall of Famer goes to school assemblies to give something back. But to Robinson it's a hell of a lot more serious than that.
Of course, the Nationals aren't going to make money selling $7 tickets to kids who can't buy beer. If the team can make money, it will be thanks to George Will, the talking head--seamhead who has six season tickets down low, and all the other suit-wearing �migr�s of the District who have wandered far from the teams of their childhoods. Robinson will be the ambassador to this crowd too. He's known George Will for decades. George W. Bush, a Houston Astros' fan in his Texas youth, had Robinson to the White House for dinner in January. Bush got to only a few games last year, although he started off well, throwing an honorary called strike from the rubber on Opening Day in St. Louis, where he'd been invited by the Cardinals' owner, his old friend Bill DeWitt Jr. Bush told Robinson that he'd love to catch the Nationals in person, but he worries about the inconvenience his presence causes paying fans.
"I understand," Robinson said, "but don't let that stop you from seeing us, Mr. President."
Robinson, who turns 70 this year, can do proper. Like a lot of baseball legends who are weary from decades in the public eye, he can also be churlish. His needle is sharp. Recently, upon meeting a young team employee new to baseball, Robinson turned to a relative veteran and said dryly, "He won't last." But his knowledge is vast, and he's willing to share. All you have to do is ask him nicely. So far this spring he has taken on these topics without breaking a sweat:
?Of course baseball has a steroid problem. There has to be some explanation for the size of some of today's sluggers. " Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, myself, the home run hitters of my time, we were considered big. Now we'd be midgets."
?His old friend and former Cincinnati Reds teammate Pete Rose should never be admitted to the Hall of Fame. "When Pete bet on baseball, he broke the Number 1 rule. Gambling on baseball is the one thing that undermines the whole game. You pay the ultimate price for that."
?The typical modern player would never have made it in his playing era, 1956--76: "They're overcoached from the age of six. Somebody is always telling them what to do, so they can't think for themselves. Some unusual situation comes up, and they don't know what to do with the ball."
He's a crank, God bless him.
don't ask Frank Robinson to get poetic on you. He will not attach any high meaning to the return of the national pastime to the nation's capital. When a TV reporter recently asked Robinson to be cosmic about baseball in Washington, he said dismissively, "That's not how guys talk about baseball." When Frank Robby gets to D.C. in April, all he wants to do is master the routes to four places: condo, golf course, stadium, airport. Someone will drive him to the schools.
Wisely, given where he'll be working, Robinson will share nothing with you about his political leanings. But he does know this about Washington: The ball will sail at RFK. He remembers that from when he was an Oriole and the bottom-feeding Senators played there, led by another Hall of Fame player turned manager, Ted Williams.