Oriole Players Aren’t Only Ones to Make Turnaround : With His Patience and Mellow Approach, Robinson Looks Like Manager of the Year
Five years ago, when Frank Robinson was fired as manager of the San Francisco Giants, there was a sense that the man with the Hall of Fame standards was, perhaps, too difficult, too demanding, too forceful to succeed as a manager.
The “old” Frank Robinson probably could not have. The “new” Frank Robinson can, and is.
As manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Robinson may have locked up manager-of-the-year honors. After all, he has taken the worst team of 1988, rebuilt it to the point the Orioles have the fourth-best record in baseball and are comfortably leading the American League East.
“He’s not one to be self-praising, so I know he’s never going to say he had as much to do with this as the players or coaches or front office have,” Oriole General Manager Roland Hemond said. “So that leaves it to me.
“I believe what Frank has done is one of the best managing jobs I’ve ever seen. He prepared this club well from the outset. His handling of the pitching staff has been tremendous. And he’s done a superb job with the rest of the roster as well.”
That may explain the Orioles’ turnaround. But what of Robinson’s?
“I’ve played with guys on other teams who played for him,” said Oriole starter Dave Schmidt. “I heard he was non-communicative, hard to get along with, a mean guy. I don’t see those things. I don’t see how you can have any problems with him.”
Could it be that one of baseball’s most relentless and intense superstars really has mellowed?
“I don’t know what people are talking about,” Robinson said, tongue in cheek. “I’ve always been a nice guy.”
Robinson’s reputation of longstanding has been anything but nice. Its foundation was built during a playing career in which Robinson set standards he and very few others could meet. Teammates feared him. Opponents?
“I used to hate Frank Robinson,” said shortstop Don Zimmer before he left the Dodgers and became a teammate of Robinson in Cincinnati.
Robinson’s reputation grew during managerial stints in Cleveland and San Francisco. He carried the weight of being the first black manager in the majors. Bent on succeeding, he had less and less tolerance for failure.
Even though Robinson took a bad club in Cleveland past .500 in 1976, even though he nearly led the Giants to a division title in 1982, he was dismissed by both clubs. By the time he left San Francisco in 1984, Robinson seemingly was at war with players, reporters, front-office personnel.
Baltimore hitting coach Tommy McCraw, a close friend of Robinson who served on each of Robinson’s coaching staffs, believes race had a lot to do with the hard times.
“People were intimidated by Frank,” said McCraw, who is also black. “Frank was probably arrogant, but there was also a problem because Frank was an intelligent black man who knew how to put a ballclub together. Baseball people had never seen that before and resented it.”
In San Francisco, Robinson was ignored when he wanted to keep veterans Joe Morgan and Reggie Smith on the team. In Baltimore, Robinson said, that would never happen.
“In the other places, I always had a say,” Robinson said. “The difference here is that people listen.”
Those who might find this all too incongruous are probably thinking, “Wait until the Orioles and Robinson hit some turbulence,” or “It’s easy to be a good guy when you’re in first place.”
Well, the new Robinson was in evidence last season when he inherited an 0-6 team from Cal Ripken and wound up overseeing a 21-game losing streak, a record for futility at the start of a season.
“I’d always found him to be a guy who was impossible to deal with,” said Jayson Stark of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Then, last year, he did more than just handle that situation. He made it bearable. He knew we had a job to do and he filled our notebooks. If he left it to the players, not only could it have been ugly, it could have been disastrous.”
One scene demonstrated Robinson’s determination not to make a bad situation worse. After a particularly tough loss in the streak’s third week, a television announcer from Japan informed Robinson that the Japanese people were greatly disturbed because Robinson was extremely popular in the Asian nation. Therefore, the reporter asked, what words of encouragement could Robinson offer Japan?
Robinson, momentarily stunned, finally smiled, then assured the Japanese people that he, and the Orioles, would be OK.
Would he have been so diplomatic five years ago? Robinson laughed and said, “No way!”
“Look, I’ve matured,” said Robinson, who will turn 54 in August. “I understand things a little differently than I did 20 years ago. That’s only natural. If you don’t grow and learn, you’re going to be a smaller person for it.”
In 1985, Robinson never thought he’d be doing any more growing as a manager, so disillusioned was he. After the Giants fired him, he returned home to the Orioles as a coach. In December, 1987, he was named assistant to Oriole owner Edward Bennett Williams. It was the first step of what Robinson hoped would be a career as a baseball executive.
Managing was the furthest thing from his mind until April 12, 1988, when Williams asked him to take over the foundering club.
“My wife Barbara thought I was crazy, thought it would reflect badly on my reputation,” Robinson said.
But Robinson was loyal to Williams, who was dying of cancer. And the Orioles happened to be the team Robinson had loved playing for more than any other.
He said yes.
“After I was fired for the second time, I think I finally got a different perspective of myself,” he said. “Maybe I was wrong more than I was right. Maybe it’s not the way you look at yourself, but the way other people see you.”
So, McCraw said, “Frank adjusted. He’s learned to accept the fact that all players don’t give their all like he did. He’s come to realize that this is a different era. Frank may never understand the new attitude, but at least he accepts it.”
Robinson agrees--to an extent.
“What was not true is when people said, ‘He can’t relate to .250 hitters,’ ” Robinson said. “That’s a lot of bull. All I ever wanted was effort. When I don’t get it, that’s what sets me off.”
The 1988 Orioles never set off Robinson, even though they lost a major league-high 107 games and never got out of the cellar.
“The effort was always there,” Robinson said. “We just didn’t have a lot of talent.”
Robinson was so patient, it grated on some players. But what those players did not understand, Hemond said, was that Robinson was intent on buying time.
“One of the things I admired the most was the way he handled (triple-A) Rochester,” Hemond said. “There were times when we were making moves, he could have asked for this guy or that, but he . . . had the foresight to understand that could do more harm than good. He wanted them ready for this year.”
When the season finally ended, disgruntled and unproductive veterans such as Eddie Murray were unloaded. Hemond promoted and acquired kids and handed them to Robinson and an almost completely revamped coaching staff.
“For this ballcub, I knew it was going to take a lot of patience, a lot of listening,” Robinson said. “There are a lot of young faces. You have to teach. It wouldn’t do any good to scream and holler because you might lose them.”
Said Hemond: “His ability to teach is wonderful. All he’s asked of the players is that they play hard and they’ve given him that.”