Frank Robinson Says Goodbye

By Carla Peay
Updated: October 2, 2006

Frank Robinson addresses the media at his final press conference as Nationals manager

Frank Robinson addresses the media at his final press conference as Nationals manager

WASHINGTON — The normally half empty press room was filled to capacity on Saturday, one day before the final game of the 2006 regular season. But the last place Washington Nationals were not the story on this day, nor have they been the story for the past few weeks.

Speculation had been rampant among the local media that the Hall of Fame manager would not be returning next year. On Saturday, at a hastily called press conference that came at least a week too late, that speculation was finally confirmed.

“The Washington Nationals have made the decision that Frank Robinson will not return as manager of the Nationals in 2007,” said Nationals vice president and GM Jim Bowden.

“We want to thank Frank very much for all he has done for the Nationals as well as the Montreal Expos under very difficult circumstances. For me personally, it’s been an honor and a privilege to be around such a great baseball man”.

“It’s very easy when you talk to him to understand why he is a hall-of-famer and why he won MVP in both leagues. It’s certainly not just physical talent. He really knows this game like no one I’ve ever met, and it’s been an honor like I said,” added Bowden.

With the explanation that the team wanted to ‘do things the right way’, Bowden told the assembled media that the Nationals will hold a Frank Robinson Day next year, giving the organization time to prepare a proper celebration, and give Robinson the respect he deserves.

A brief tribute to Robinson was planned for Sunday’s final game. Robinson made his statement to the press following Bowden’s, the two men seated next to one another making for an awkward picture.

“I’d like to thank the Washington Nationals for the opportunity to manage this ballclub. I’d also like to thank the politicians and the local government people for bringing this ballclub to this great area and doing what they could do to make us feel welcome,” said Robinson.

“Most of you here have known for quite some time, but now, its official. It’s been a good ride for me. It’s been 51 years. The old saying is that when you take a manager’s job, if you stay around long enough you’re going to be fired,” Robinson said, adding that he had no bitter feelings toward the club.

For the past few weeks, Robinson had made it known that he wished to have a meeting with team officials to discuss his future with the club, saying that if this was the end (of his managerial career), he wanted the chance to say goodbye.

Questions to Nationals management regarding Robinson’s status were stonewalled prior to Saturday’s press conference. But in the middle of a week that could only be described as surreal, the story finally broke.

During a 14 inning game which the Nationals eventually lost to the playoff-hopeful Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday, The Washington Post broke the story that Robinson would not be asked back next season. There was only one problem. National’s management had apparently not broken the news to Robinson yet.

During an awkward post game press conference, reporters asked questions about the Nationals 8-7 loss to the Phillies, but the only question no one dared ask was the one that everyone wanted to ask – did Robinson know that the team was not bringing him back next season?

After the press conference ended and Robinson stood to leave, one reporter finally broached the subject. “You guys have been writing that for weeks,” was Robinson’s response as he left the media room.

Two more awkward days followed as the news that everyone knew but no one would confirm hung more heavily in the air than the dampness that accompanied the four and a half hour downpour prior to Thursday’s game.

With Philadelphia still in the playoff chase, the game had to be played, and it was, with the first pitch coming at 11:35 p.m. The game ended at 2:07 a.m., with the stunned Phillies losing 3-1 to the scrappy, still fighting Nationals.

As for the meeting Robinson wanted, it finally happened before Thursday’s marathon rain delay. In separate meetings with Bowden, and Nationals president Stan Kasten, Robinson was told he would not be asked back.

“Normally, a decision like this would be made on Monday. But because of Frank Robinson’s stature as an icon in the game, we wanted to honor his wish to be told before the end of the season,” said Kasten, adding that the search for a new manager will begin on Monday, and that a diverse pool of candidates would be considered. Robinson broke the news to his players and coaching staff on Saturday.

“Frank is an even better man than he was a player,” said first base coach Davey Lopes. “It was a great experience to coach under him. I wish him nothing but the best,” Lopes said, adding that no decision has been made on the future of Robinson’s coaching staff.

“To hear him say that we should continue to play hard and do the best we can for our next manager kind of hits you. It didn’t feel real good. I’ve been with him the last five years and when I think of my manager, I think of Frank Robinson,” said Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, who described Robinson as a friend.

“It’s not so much this franchise, but all of baseball. He might have had one of the best careers ever in baseball. To see what he’s accomplished in 51 years in baseball is unbelievable. It was an honor to play for him,” added Schneider.

Mets general manager Omar Miniya worked with Robinson in Montreal and the two remain friends. When the Mets come to town, Miniya always pays a visit to Robinson’s office.

“I wish he were coming back, but I understand that the team owners want to go in a different direction,” said Miniya, who said he can easily relate to Robinson.

“He was the first black manager, I was the first Hispanic general manager. He really helped me a lot. He was a great influence on me. All of us are indebted to Frank Robinson. He was the Jackie Robinson of managing,” said Minaya.

Mets manager Willie Randolph echoed Minaya’s sentiments.

“I feel a little sad by it. He should be in the game. I have tremendous respect for him. He taught me a lot. I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Frank,” said Randolph. When Randolph became the manager of the New York Mets, Frank Robinson was the first person who called him.

On Sunday, the final day of the season, it was clear that the fans appreciated the chance to say goodbye to Robinson just as much as he had hoped for the chance to say good bye to them.

The stands were filled with signs saying ‘Thank you’ and ‘We love you’. The game was delayed by 20 minutes, as Robinson came out to home plate to address the crowd. A video tribute to his hall-of fame career followed.

“You opened your hearts to us, and the hardest thing to say is goodbye,” he said to the crowd, who responded with a standing ovation. Both dugouts emptied, as did the bullpens, as Mets and Nationals players came to home plate to pay their respects to Robinson with a handshake or a hug.

And as the tears began to flow, Robinson was glad to get the game underway.

It was clear by the second inning that the Nationals would be unable to pull out a win for their manager in his final game, losing by a score of 6-2, but with nothing to play for for either team, the fans soon turned their attention away from the contest on the field to the man standing on the top step of the dugout.

They hung over the railing, hoping for an autograph or a picture. And as the game neared its end, Robinson was happy to oblige them, waving his arms as they responded with cheers. When the final out was recorded, Robinson and the team he no longer managed remained on the field, the goodbyes lingering between players and fans.

It became a party that no one wanted to leave.

He will be back next season, to celebrate Frank Robinson Day. He may be offered another position within the Nationals organization, with another team, or within major league baseball. But despite the end of his career as a manager, Robinson made it abundantly clear that he is not retiring.

“What I have given to baseball, I wanted to give. What I’ve done for baseball, I wanted to do. If I’ve helped this be a better game, if I’ve helped somebody in this game be a better player or a better coach or a better manager, that’s great”.

“A lot of people helped me along the way, and a lot of people are still helping me and I’ve appreciated that. All I’ve ever tried to do was give something back to this game. If they want to use my brain and my knowledge,” Robinson said, a slight twinkle in his eye, “you’ll see me again,” he said.

Baseball should be so lucky.