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Robinson: Enigma to Many : Baseball: Former Baltimore manager may have mellowed, but he still didn’t win many popularity contests with the Orioles.

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WASHINGTON POST

Frank Robinson and a friend were leaving the Forum after a Lakers game last winter when a young man approached, extended his right hand and said: “Frank, my name is M.C. Hammer. Remember me? I used to work for the A’s. Remember, Frank?”

Hammer was excited to see Robinson and wanted him to know that the kid who was once a clubhouse helper at the Oakland Coliseum had now made it big as a musician. Robinson, barely breaking stride, waved him away, got in his Mercedes and headed home as a disappointed Hammer stood and watched.

Later that night, Robinson told his family the story and asked if they’d ever heard of this guy M.C. Hammer. Daughter Nichelle was incredulous.

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“Daddy,” she said in disbelief, “you mean you blew off M.C. Hammer? Haven’t you heard of him? He’s a huge star.”

Robinson told that story on himself one day this spring as he sat in a golf cart and watched his Baltimore Orioles take batting practice. He’d been asked about intimidation and whether he still rubbed people the wrong way as often as he once did during his 35 years in a big-league uniform.

He told the bit about M.C. Hammer to show that, while he may have mellowed, he still could be rude, still didn’t allow many people to get close to him and, indeed, really was the same guy who was perhaps as ferocious and fearless a player as any in baseball history.

Robinson said he was the same guy who once had to be pulled off a reporter who’d written something unkind; who grabbed San Francisco Giants pitcher Jim Barr and dragged him back to the mound after Barr had tried to leave the field before Manager Robinson arrived; who responded to an exhibition-game knockdown pitch by Bob Reynolds by grounding out, jogging across the infield and decking Reynolds.

That day this spring, a few months before his 56th birthday, Robinson said a lot of that Frank Robinson was still around, and he laughed about it. Yet, he admitted he’d also worked hard to change the way people perceive him.

“I haven’t changed, but I’ve tried to make people change the way they think of me,” he said. “At some point, you read the articles and hear what people say and start to realize that is you they’re talking about. You may not agree, but that’s the guy people said I was.”

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Those questions about Frank Robinson were relevant again this past week after the Orioles fired him and named first-base coach John Oates their manager. The Orioles privately have a checklist of reasons for the move, hinting that Robinson was unapproachable and somewhat lazy, that he seemed more interested in having the title and enjoying the rewards of the job than in working hard and that he was sometimes a tick slow on his in-game decisions.

Likewise, many of his players privately blasted him, saying he seemed uninterested in them or the team, that he cared more about entertaining reporters and watching the Lakers on his office television.

“He sits in there, never talks to us, makes you come to him if you’re hurt,” one player said. “We’re out there getting our teeth kicked every night, and you get the feeling he can’t wait to get back inside and find out the basketball scores.”

Still, few big-league managers would win popularity contests and Sparky Anderson, Gene Mauch and Dick Williams didn’t do badly using similar managerial styles. As infielder Ray Knight once said of his early days with Anderson and the Cincinnati Reds: “I don’t think Sparky knew my name for about a year. He might have been closer to Pete Rose and some of the veteran guys, but Sparky had nothing to do with a kid just up.”

Did the Orioles fail because Robinson (who declined to be interviewed for this article) didn’t talk to his players and didn’t stand on the top step of the dugout? To some, firing him seemed the easy way out, the same one most teams take in an era when there have been three dozen managerial changes in five years. Robinson was the scapegoat for a farm system that has gone almost a decade without producing a star hitter (Cal Ripken Jr. arrived late in the 1981 season), an owner, Eli Jacobs, who hasn’t bid for front-line free agents, and a general manager, Roland Hemond, who has made some bad decisions.

“I think it was a totally gutless move,” an Orioles coach said. “Nothing against John, who’s a good man and will be a fine manager. It’s just that they stood up there and said everyone shares the blame. But look who got fired. Frank did. Does that sound blameless?”

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Robinson became the first black to manage in the big leagues when the Cleveland Indians hired him in 1975, and since then, only four others have had the chance, including Hal McRae, hired by Kansas City just Friday. Robinson became a crusader in urging that blacks be given more positions of responsibility in baseball, and now as he departs the field again, progress has been slight.

Major-league baseball has had only three black pitching coaches, including the Orioles’ Al Jackson. There’s not a black third-base coach, and blacks inside the game are still skeptical about their opportunities.

Robinson will be given the title of assistant general manager if he stays with the Orioles, and meanwhile the dozen or so black men who appear qualified to manage -- a list that includes Don Baylor, Chris Chambliss, Vada Pinson, Tom Reynolds and Bill Robinson -- wait.

“The argument used to be that blacks wouldn’t put in the time,” said Orioles hitting coach Tom McCraw, a black. “But why put in the time when you wouldn’t get the chance? Now, there are more chances, and you’re seeing more blacks managing in the minors and getting their chance. We’ll see if it makes any difference.”

It’s obvious that Robinson meant different things to different people. Longtime Orioles employees say his name with something approaching reverence, remembering how he arrived in 1966 and sparked Baltimore to four pennants in six years. They talk about his incredible presence both in the clubhouse and on the field, and how he more than any other player began 17 years of Orioles prosperity that ended shortly after the ’83 World Series.

They talk about the 1966 home run into the parking lot at Memorial Stadium, the only one ever. They talk about Robinson leaping into the right-field stands to rob a Yankee of a three-run home run during the ’66 pennant run, then doing the same thing in the left-field stands a few weeks later. They talk about home runs off Don Drysdale in Games 1 and 4 of the ’66 World Series sweep. They talk about the postgame kangaroo courts, where Robinson fined teammates for their mistakes.

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One longtime Orioles employee became emotional this past week when he talked about how Robinson kept the 1971 World Series alive in the 10th inning of Game 6 by drawing a one-out walk and, despite a sore Achilles’ tendon, going from first to third on a single. He pulled a thigh muscle on a headfirst slide into the bag, but, limping badly, tagged up and scored on a short sacrifice fly.

Only a few of the current Orioles knew much about that Frank Robinson. Some weren’t even born when Robinson won the triple crown in 1966, and the man they knew was different: aloof, unapproachable, intimidating.

“The thing about Frank was that he was approachable,” reliever Gregg Olson said. “He’d listen, explain things to you and you’d leave feeling good about things. But a lot of players didn’t know that, and there were times when you didn’t know if he was kidding.

“The first time I went into his office, he looked up and said, ‘What the ... do you want?’ Here I am, I’ve got 30 days in the big leagues, and I wanted to turn and run. But that was the way he did things. He didn’t mind sitting down and talking, and I felt I could approach him about anything. But, whoa, that first time in there can take some courage.”

A lot of the Orioles never made that first trip, and club officials said a managerial style that might have worked with every team in 1959 and with the Orioles in 1989 wasn’t what they wanted in 1991. In ‘89, he gave a young team dignity, stature and a certain presence as they took the ashes of 107 losses in 1988 and roared into a pennant race with 13 rookies and a team built on pitching and defense.

Those Orioles may have held him in awe, especially after almost everything he tried worked. The Orioles won 87 games that season, but reality hit hard in 1990 when they fell to 76-85. Last week, they were in last place when Robinson was fired.

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Team officials, hesitant to comment publicly since they’re hoping Robinson will stay with the organization, say something besides talented players was missing, and they’re hoping Oates will provide it. Hemond said people have a misconception about player-manager relations in an era when the average salary is around $700,000.

“There are a different set of responsibilities for the manager now,” Hemond said. “There may be more financial security (for players), but there’s more insecurity than ever. Money creates pressures that never existed before. Players do have to be reassured. When I started in the game, only a very few players made a lot of money and almost all of them had offseason jobs. You wanted to be in the big leagues, but there wasn’t that much difference between the salaries you’d make in the minors and the majors.

“It’s completely different now. There’s so much more at stake. Players take more abuse from fans than ever before, and once they’ve tasted life in the big leagues, they don’t ever want to go back. I can’t remember when I first noticed it, but there was a day when it dawned on me: ‘Players are asking a lot of questions.’ I thought it was great then and I think it’s great now. You should have an answer and it keeps you on your toes as well. And you learn by listening.

“Chuck Tanner was terrific about throwing an arm around a player and letting him know he was there. Tommy Lasorda, Tony La Russa, Jim Leyland -- all those guys do the same thing, and it means so much to a player.”

Frank Robinson was never going to be Tommy Lasorda, and this spring he even joked about the pampering of players. The Orioles had been told that Glenn Davis, acquired from the Astros, was a terrific player and good person, but that he needed constant reassurance and a soft touch.

Reporters kidded Robinson about how he’d handle Davis, and once, joking, Robinson showed how he’d do it, throwing an arm around a reporter, looking the other way and whispering, “Uh, good job there, Glenn.”

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“That was just Frank’s way,” McCraw said. “I’ve known him longer than anyone around here, and he was always like that. He jumped in everybody’s face, and maybe people didn’t know how to take him. But if they tried to get to know him, they’d find that was just the window dressing. He might have been rude to people sometimes, but when you’ve been asked for eight million autographs and never gotten to finish a meal without being disturbed, you’d let the edges show once in a while.”

One of Robinson’s players said that was important, but that complaints about him went deeper.

“Motivation is part of it,” the player said. “Frank was good if you initiated the talk, but he did nothing if you didn’t approach him first. He’d never come up and ask about an injury, and we assumed he went to the trainers and got a daily update. Some of us thought he’d lost his fire to manage.

“After his back surgery in ‘88, he seemed to have less energy. He spent a lot of time in his office and just sat passively on the bench. There were times he’d be a step late with his decisions, like he was bored. I remember several times when a guy would already be digging in at the plate and Frank would say, ‘Hold it, I want to pinch-hit.’ The pinch hitter would go out there having not warmed up or anything.

“But Frank knew the game so well himself, he assumed all of us knew what to do without being told. He thought the pinch hitters would know when they were about to be called on. If all of us were as great as him, I guess we would know. The odd part is, I ended up liking him once I got to know him. But there were a lot of guys scared to death of him. They didn’t think he knew them or gave a damn about them.”

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