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A Conversation with Frank Robinson
WASHINGTON, D.C.—At the mid-point of the baseball season, heading into the All-Star Break, Washington Informer contributing writer Carla K. Peay sat down for a one-on-one interview with Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson. Robinson is the early favorite for Manager of the Year in the National League. With a payroll that is roughly half of every other team in his division, Robinson has his team in first place, with the best home record in baseball.
CP: You are managing a first place team, playing in front of crowds of 35,000 plus every night. How does this compare to your experience in Montreal?
FR: It doesn’t. The situations are completely different. There were small crowds in Montreal. Here, the crowds are large and enthusiastic. Here, it’s a first place team. In Montreal, it was fourth or fifth place, third place, sometimes last place, struggling to catch the Braves and being fifteen games behind. We were playing for pride, to be the best we could possibly be, knowing that you have no chance to be first. That’s the big difference. We are in first place now. We feel good about ourselves, we feel like we belong there, we deserve to be there, we’ve played the best baseball in this division so far, and we’re going to try our hardest to stay there and win a division title.
They brought up the wildcard today. That’s the furthest thing from our mind. We’re not thinking wildcard. There’s a time and place for that if it comes about, but we’re in first place. Everybody else is looking up at us. We just want to focus on the way we’ve approached this season from day one. One series at a time. It’s a tremendous feeling to be where we are not only in first place, but here in this city and with the support that we have here at the ballpark and throughout this community.
CP: Early talk has you as the favorite for Manager of the Year. How are you able to get what you get out of this team?
FR: I respect everybody and treat them like they’re men. As long as they act like that. I let them go about and handle things themselves. I have certain rules, not very many, and I expect them to be followed. When they police themselves, I allow them to do so, but if I think they’re not doing it, then I step in. I tell them what I expect from them on the field. If I don’t get that, they hear about it. I tell them what I expect from them off the field and here in the clubhouse. If I don’t get that, they hear about it. If they continue to make the same mistakes, then I have to take sterner action. I could take away their playing time, but I’ll never hurt the team by not playing somebody. So I hit them where I think it hurts and that’s in their wallets.
I don’t like fining people, but if you continue to make the same mistakes, like kids you have to be punished in a way. That’s the way that we do it here. But I’m not going to fine somebody the first time they do something. I talk to them, explain things, and say let’s not let it happen again. But I treat them like they’re men. I let them go out and play, I try to prepare them and put them in situations where I feel like they can be successful.
CP: What are the challenges of managing a team that doesn’t have an owner?
FR: That doesn’t really affect us, because we don’t allow it to. We have no control over that. What we do have control over is playing baseball games and winning and losing baseball games. That’s what we focus on. We let the people in the position to do that (select an owner), let them think about those things. The Commissioner’s office is not going to ask us what group we feel like we want to have here as owners, so we don’t focus on that.
CP: When you do finally get an owner, what would you like to see happen for this team?
FR: (Laughing) Well naturally as a manager, I’d like to see them just go out and load up with ballplayers. Hopefully the new ownership here will understand what they can do to improve this team, and make this a championship team. It doesn’t just start here. It starts in the minor leagues. Number one, lets get an overall organizational policy in place, so that we’re all on the same page about the way we want things done throughout this organization, from the top here at the major league level all the way down to the rookie league level. You don’t mediate those things. Let’s follow them to a T.
Let’s start by getting scouts who understand the type of players we want in this organization. Then they go out and find these gems, and let’s be willing to spend the money, sign them and get them into the organization so we can develop these kids. We need to build up a strong minor league system and that’s your foundation. At the major league level, that’s your house, but you’re going to build on that foundation. That’s what you’re going to draw from over the years. Then you use free agency selectively. Teams have tried to buy pennants and World Series. You can win one here and there that way, but you can’t do it on a consistent basis. The teams with good minor league systems are the ones that are usually around the top year in and year out.
CP: The game has gone global, which is terrific for the sport, but the young black kids aren’t playing baseball in as large a number as they used to. How would you address that?
FR: There’s no one answer. This is a deep-seeded and widespread problem, and people don’t really realize how big a problem it is. I don’t have the answer, I only have suggestions and thoughts. I noticed this maybe five or six years ago, and I mentioned it to people I thought should know. Major League Baseball has taken some steps, but we need more than that. We need the involvement of African American power groups. We need the help of the communities.
Baseball needs to put out a task force, and go into the inner cities and listen to what the people have to say. They’re the only ones who can give us the answers. And once we’ve collected this information, we have to do something with it. We have to help the kids get involved and think about playing baseball, and our school systems have to make money available for kids to get involved in athletics at all levels. When kids play one sport, they get curious about other sports.
CP: How has the game changed since the days when you were a player?
FR: The game hasn’t changed. It’s the people in the game and what we do and how we approach it now. It all goes back to uniforms. Salaries. The playing fields are better. Ticket prices have gone up. All of these things have changed, but the game itself is still the same. It’s still 90 feet to first base and another 90 feet to the next one. The fences have changed in some ballparks. They’ve gone back to the old smaller ballparks and people are closer to the field, but the game hasn’t changed. Three outs, four balls, three strikes.
CP: What do you think of the recent steroid controversy in baseball?
FR: All I can say is I don’t know of anybody who’s ever taken them. Sure I’ve been suspicious, I’ve been told and have read a little about what they can do for you, and that players might be using them, but I would not accuse anybody with the little knowledge I have. All I can say is that anytime anyone can be proven to have used steroids they should be put out of the game, and their records should be wiped out. We can’t try to go back to where they started (using steroids). I don’t think anybody can pinpoint where they started. But if they chose to do that before they were out of baseball, then you wipe it all out (player’s records).
CP: How do you feel about congressional involvement in the steroid issue?
FR: I would hope that congress wouldn’t have to get involved. I would hope that we in baseball could understand and take care of it ourselves. What people don’t understand is that Congress getting involved has been good. I think it has been positive. I think it has gotten baseballs’ attention, and the players association and the player’s attention, so that they can move quicker than they usually move. All sports have unions, but none of them is as strong as the Major League Baseball Players Association. They have a say in almost everything that happens in this game, and they’re very strong. Most things that are done, rules that are invoked or talked about always have to be okayed by the players association. The players union has gotten stronger each year.
People wonder why baseball doesn’t do certain things. If they could do them, they would. But they have to go through the players association and get them on board. They’re very tough. They don’t want to give anything that they’ve gotten over the years. But Congress has gotten them off the starting line, because that’s where the drug policy was, and it was probably going to stay that way for the next five or six years until the next agreement. But they’ve (Congress) gotten them down the track now and they got their attention. I think the performances of the players in the past helped baseball understand how deep this thing might be. Anybody who’s using them, I have no compassion for them, and no sympathy for them.