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COMMENTARY : Robinson Starting to Feel the Heat of Many Fires

Washington Post

At the All Star break last season the Baltimore Orioles were 25 games out and sputtering toward finishing 53 games under .500. They were so deep in the cellar, they grew moss. Now, they’re 11 over. They’re up so high, Dead Heads want tickets. The Bible says the last shall be first, but no team ever fufilled the prophecy in one year before -- not even 1969’s Miracle Mets, the team the O’s keenly resemble. We may be witnessing the greatest comeback since it turned out Elvis wasn’t really dead.

What’s the story with Frank Robinson? How serious is this threat not to manage again? Is it the political commitment of John Thompson in Prop. 42, or the impetuous blowing off of steam after a rough weekend? And how accurate is Orioles hitting coach Tommy McCraw’s assessment that racism is at the core of Robinson’s contretemps with umpires?

Angered by what he obviously perceived as unfair, maybe even conspiratorial treatment by umpires, Robinson complained, “I can’t manage this ball club the way things are going. I can’t go out and defend my team. I can’t question a call, I can’t go out on the field.” Robinson never mentioned race, but McCraw did, saying, “What else would (umpires) resent him for? Frank’s a bright guy. I think some of them are having trouble dealing with that. He was the first black manager. I think there are umpires who don’t accept that.”

Racism is not something to be invoked capriciously. The regressive implications of this story sit in sobering counterpoint to more refreshing news that a group of black businessmen has bought the Denver Nuggets, the first such black ownership in a major sport.

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If Robinson thinks racism is in operation here, he should say so. One appropriate person to tell would be Bobby Brown, the American League president. Anaheim isn’t that big a place that they couldn’t meet -- if not at the ball yard, then at Magic Mountain. But isn’t it equally possible that the umpires’ battles are with Frank Robinson, manager, not Frank Robinson, black manager?

Ken Kaiser, a veteran umpire, said, “Frank was one of the greatest players of all time. Very few umpires are going to be at their job as Frank was at his. He tends to nit-pick. ... There’s got to be some respect going both ways.”

On successive weekend days in Milwaukee, Robinson squabbled with umpire Jim McKean, strode onto the field to tell umpire Larry Young, “I just want you to know that I dislike you as much as you dislike me,” and said of umpire John Shulock’s explanation of a critical interference call, “That’s a lie. He’s lying through his teeth. He’s full of (something likehooey). ... “

Hello, information? Do you have a number for Dale Carnegie?

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Frank Robinson was a very, very tough guy as a player, a leader by word and by deed. He was the greatest teammate you could ever wish for, and the fiercest opponent. To establish territory he’d crowd the plate; if the price was getting hit, he’d pay it. Nobody wanted more to win.

You take that attitude and expose it to Earl Weaver, a very, very tough guy as a manager, a contentious little rooster of a man, an umpire’s nightmare, and what you get is a lot of things -- but conciliatory isn’t one of them. In fighting for his players, Frank Robinson the manager is going to be every bit as feisty, as uncompromising, as stubborn and as snarly as The Duke of Earl. (Robinson was even tough with his own players at San Francisco. There were no moist eyes when he was canned.) Judging by the O’s standing, it’s working fabulously. Robinson has a tender, callow team playing grizzled baseball. You can understand why he would jealously guard the delicate mix.

What you wonder about is why Robinson went to the extreme of threatening to take this hike? He’s already a shoo-in for American League manager of the year. Even if some umpires are getting chippy with him, he’s not alone; noted AL ump baiters Bobby Valentine of Texas and Boston’s Joe Morgan get similar treatment.

Is Robinson feeling the strain of a pennant race he never expected to make this season, and magnifying an argument into a vendetta? The O’s lost three of their last four; any manager might find that tailoring a bit snug.

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Or has he taken a longer view? It’s human nature to bend over backwards to treat your accuser fairly. Maybe Frank Robinson, like a savvy basketball coach, courted a technical now -- still in the first half -- so he might get the benefit of the doubt later in the game.


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