RIP

RIP Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson
Paul Tepley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Frank Robinson, an inner-circle Hall of Famer and one of the very best outfielders ever to lace up spikes, passed away today after a battle with bone cancer. His career saw an MVP with the Reds in 1961, and another with the Orioles in 1966. When he retired in 1976, his 586 career homers ranked fourth all-time, and even after the steroid era still rate as the tenth most ever.

Just as notably, Robinson was the first African American manager in big league history, with Cleveland in 1975, and went on to manage the Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals. It was the latter tenure—during his final season as a big league skipper, in fact—that brings us one of my favorites stories of the man, and a fitting coda to his managing career. From The Baseball Codes:

Frank Robinson was one of the toughest players in baseball history, a guy who during his Hall of Fame playing career exhibited virtually no mental weakness on a ballfield, the perfect example of an indestructible personality. As a manager, however, at the helm of the Washington Nationals in 2006, he once broke down completely. Over the previous weeks the seventy-year-old Robinson had watched help­lessly as his catchers went down to injury, one by agonizing one. Starter Brian Schneider was disabled with a hamstring strain. Robert Fick, who was primarily an outfielder/first baseman anyway, missed the first six weeks of the season with elbow damage, and finally came off the disabled list to be used as a pinch-hitter, not to play the field. The only other guy on the club with catching experience was Wiki Gonzalez, who by that point wasn’t actually on the team—he was due to be outrighted to Triple-A New Orleans the following day and had already appeared in what would be his final game for Washington.

Desperate before a game against the Astros, Robinson turned to one of his favorite players, Matt LeCroy. LeCroy came up as a catcher but had primarily been a designated hitter to that point in his seven-year career, and spent all of one inning behind the plate the pre­vious season. Also, he was battling bone spurs in his throwing elbow. LeCroy was willing to catch, but he’d effectively be taking one for the team—and both he and Robinson knew it.

The Astros stole a base against the injured catcher in the second inning, and another in the fourth. By the sixth they had homed in on his weak­ness and began a slow, painful process of exploitation, swiping four more bags in the frame. In the seventh, Morgan Ensberg stole Houston’s sev­enth base of the night, advanced to third on LeCroy’s second throwing error of the game, then scored on Preston Wilson’s single, to close what had been a 7–1 Nationals lead to 7–5. At that point, Robinson couldn’t take any more. In the middle of the inning he instructed Fick—who had started only twenty games as a catcher over the previous four seasons— to strap on some shin guards, and walked slowly toward the plate to replace LeCroy.

Robinson knew the Code [against removing players in the middle of an inning for any reason except injury], but, as repugnant as he found it, he felt he had no choice. He wasn’t angry at LeCroy, but sorry for him. Sorry that he was exposed as being so vulnerable, sorry he couldn’t get the job done, sorry circumstances dictated that he had to be out there in the first place. LeCroy took it well, saying, “If my daddy was managing this team I’m sure he would have done the same thing,” but when Robinson was asked about it after the game, one of the hardest men in baseball was unable to maintain his composure. As he talked, tears streamed down his cheeks.

“It’s not LeCroy’s fault,” he said. “We know his shortcomings. They took advantage of him today. That’s my responsibility. I put him in there. . . . That’s on my shoulders.” In protecting his player from one evil—the base-path assault of the Houston Astros—Robinson exposed him to another: potential ridicule from fans and players alike. The man­ager was forced to choose between two barely palatable options, and ulti­mately decided to put the good of the team ahead of the good of both LeCroy and, to gauge by his analysis of the situation, himself.

Robinson, as fierce a competitor as the sport has known, will be sorely missed.

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