VIERA, Fla. - Frank Robinson clasps his hands behind his head, leans backon his desk chair and begins telling reporters about the progress of a reliefpitcher when he's interrupted by laughter.
In the room connecting to Robinson's spring training office, the WashingtonNationals' coaching staff is yukking it up, carrying on so loudly that it canbe heard through the closed door.
"You'd think they won the pennant in there," Robinson says with half asmile. "See what a change in uniforms can do to you?"
It's a joke that resonates with those who have spent some time aroundRobinson this spring.
As much as the Hall of Fame slugger and Nationals manager has tired of theissue, it won't go away. Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News havefeatured it. Newsweek and Time have set up interviews with Robinson to discussit.
Next to performance-enhancing drugs and congressional hearings, no topichas been exhausted more this spring than the change of address and change ofuniforms for Robinson and his players, the nomadic squad formerly known as theMontreal Expos.
After three years as a ward of baseball, which included 43 "home" games inSan Juan, Puerto Rico, the past two seasons, the team has officially moved tothe nation's capital, where it will play at renovated Robert F. KennedyStadium for at least three seasons.
"It certainly is going to be more exciting," said Robinson, a formerOrioles star and manager who became the Expos' manager in 2002, when MajorLeague Baseball took over the team. "We're looking forward to it. It's notjust me; it's the players also."
Nationals catcher Brian Schneider had spent all five of his major leagueseasons in Montreal, where the fan base dwindled from sporadic to embarrassingby the time baseball eventually pulled the plug.
The lack of support was tough to take, Schneider said.
"When you go into other cities - you go into Philly, you go into Atlanta -you see these guys with a full house every night," Schneider said. "As avisitor, you know what it is like when we screw up or when the other team doessomething good and how much louder it gets. The crowd can get you a littlemore pumped up for the game or keep the momentum going for you.
"We haven't had that, and it is going to be a good change for us."
Robinson vividly remembers a turning point in his traveling Expos odyssey:June 12, 2003.
The Expos were in second place in the National League East, had won six ina row and were playing an interleague series finale against the Mariners inSeattle. The Expos had won the first two games, even after an exhaustingflight from Puerto Rico to Seattle on their open date.
In the middle of a tight, low-scoring contest on the third day after theflight, Robinson surveyed his troops and then turned to his bench coach.
"I said, `The air has gone out.' You could just see it. You could feel it,"Robinson said.
The Expos lost that game, 1-0, and then dropped seven of their next nine.
"You could see the [travel] starting to take its toll on the players,"Robinson said. "And we didn't recover."
The Expos finished fourth that season, despite winning 83 games - the samenumber they won in 2002 when they placed second. Last year, the lame-duckExpos finished last in the division with a 67-95 record and had thesecond-worst home record (35-45) in the league.
This offseason, new general manager Jim Bowden signed free-agent shortstopCristian Guzman and third baseman Vinny Castilla and traded for talented butvolatile outfielder Jose Guillen.
They'll join an offense that includes three-time All Star second basemanJose Vidro and left fielder Brad Wilkerson, who hit 32 homers in 2004.
Workhorse Livan Hernandez, one of baseball's most durable pitchers, leadsthe starting rotation. Behind him, however, the Nationals have enigmaticright-hander Esteban Loaiza, injured Tony Armas and three other starterscoming off injury-shortened seasons: Zach Day, Tomo Ohka and John Patterson.
At least the pitchers aren't too concerned about playing at RFK Stadium,which hasn't hosted a regular-season baseball game since the WashingtonSenators left for Texas after the 1971 season.
Robinson said RFK won't be much different from what it was when he visitedthere with the Orioles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"If you don't make your pitches, it's going to hurt you. If you make yourpitches, you are going to get hitters out," Robinson said. "It's a goodballpark. It's a fair ballpark."
Robinson, who turns 70 in August, hasn't talked much to his players abouthis own experiences at RFK. If he did, though, they would listen.
"He knows a lot," said closer Chad Cordero, 23, who anchors a strongbullpen. "He has confidence in guys, too, whether it's a young guy coming upor an older guy. ... He'll stick with them. That helps a player a lot. Ithelps you try that much harder."
Robinson won't predict how the Nationals will fare in a difficult NL Eastthat includes the powerful Atlanta Braves, the Florida Marlins, thePhiladelphia Phillies and an improved New York Mets.
But he vows his team will play hard for its new fan base.
"The mood itself is more upbeat, now that we are looking forward tosomething, and that something is Washington, D.C.," Robinson said. "[The fans]are talking about how eager they are for the season to start, and the playersfeed off of that.
"And now they are very excited about it and are eager to get to Washingtonto get started."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times