Sometimes, There Is Crying in Baseball

By Carla Peay
Updated: May 28, 2006

Nationals Manager Frank robinson relaxes in his office before a game.

Nationals Manager Frank robinson relaxes in his office before a game.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—At first, we all wondered if perhaps he had something in his eyes. Perhaps it was allergies, pollen, or dust. And let’s face it, there are any number of smells in dilapidated RFK Stadium that could reduce a man to tears, including the ruptured sewer line behind the home dugout.

But it was none of those things. It was a Hall-of-Fame manager, one of the toughest players the game has ever seen crying in his post game press conference after doing something rarely ever seen in a major league game – replacing a non-injured position player in the middle of an inning. This wasn’t a disciplinary move. We’ve all seen a player yanked in order to make a statement for a non hustle play. We’ve all seen pitchers who suddenly forget how to throw strikes get yanked, even in the middle of a count. This was an ineffective player being removed mid inning by a manager who was broken hearted that he had to do it.

On Thursday afternoon against the visiting Houston Astros, back up catcher Matt LeCroy was behind the plate, because the Nationals regular catcher Brian Schneider was one day from coming off the disabled list with a hamstring injury. So here was LeCroy, who had started in eight games at catcher, behind the plate and proving to be ill-equipped to the challenge. It didn’t take the Astros long to realize that LeCroy is no Schneider when it comes to throwing out runners. Schneider is one of the baseball’s best defense catchers. LeCroy had already given up 13 stolen bases on the season and hadn’t thrown out anyone.

So, with the Nationals leading by a score of 7-5 in the 7th inning, and after LeCroy had given up seven stolen bases and made two throwing errors, Frank Robinson emerged from the dugout and removed LeCroy from the game, replacing him with a player who hadn’t started a game at catcher all season, Robert Fick. The Nationals hung on for an 8-5 win that afternoon, giving them a much needed series win over the reigning National League Champion Astros, but the story of the day was Robinson’s reaction to having to pull LeCroy from the game.

“I wasn’t trying to embarrass him in any way. It was just a move I felt like I had to make at the time. I hope he understands and the fans understand”, Robinson said, dabbing at the tears that rolled down his cheeks. Even LeCroy understood, saying that if his daddy had been managing, he would have pulled him from the game.

“I appreciate him and what he had to go through”, Robinson added.

Pulling ineffective players is nothing new for Robinson, who has the reputation of having a notoriously quick hook.

Last season, Nationals fans and media blinked back the shock when Robinson pulled starting pitcher John Halama from a game in early September in the middle of the first inning. With the Nationals down 1-0, Halama was removed after throwing 13 balls and 11 strikes for what Robinson would later term a “lack of aggressiveness”.

“He was one base hit away from blowing the game open”, Robinson said at the time, proving that he has no trouble at all making that call when he feels the game is in jeopardy.

One of baseball’s true living legends, Frank Robinson has seen it all in his fifty plus years in the game, from racism, both subtle and overt, to the indignity of seeing his hallowed records challenged and passed by players widely thought to be steroid abusers. Like home run king Hank Aaron, Robinson’s value and place in this game are still undervalued, overshadowed by an on-demand world that floods our airwaves with the noise of Barry Bonds and his current chase of a non-existent record, 715 homers.

Robinson’s rapport with is players unquestioned. Veteran reliever Joey Eischen speaks of his manager with near reverence. Star outfielder Jose Guillen would “run through a wall” for him. That Robinson’s empathy for LeCroy reached the level it did shows us all something we rarely see from a man of his stature, even from those of us fortunate enough to cover this man and his team on a regular basis. We saw his heart, his character, his humanity. We saw his love of the game, and his willingness to do whatever it took to help his slumping team get a much needed victory, and the all-too human difficulty that sometimes comes with that task.

The following day, in an evening contest against the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers, the cameras caught the two men, Robinson and LeCroy, standing side by side on the steps of the dugout, talking. A clubhouse cut-up, LeCroy smiled as he talked with his manager. It became, once again, business as usual for the Nationals. For all he has endured, surely this man is due for a few tears of joy.