Deep down, The Intimidator was really an Old Softie

He was The Intimidator, the fearsome presence who commanded a room the moment he walked in, the baseball icon who played and managed his entire career with a chip on his shoulder. That was the Frank Robinson most of the world knew, the version of himself he wanted most of the world to know.

But he was also The Old Softie, the jovial uncle who cared deeply about those who managed to crack his outer visage, whether teammates, players of his or reporters who covered him. This was the Frank Robinson few knew, the version of himself he only revealed away from the spotlight.

And that’s what made Robinson such a captivating figure, certainly for this once-young reporter who had no idea what I was getting into when the Nationals arrived in 2005 and was rewarded with the most enjoyable professional experience I’d ever had or will have in this business.

I was 28, and though I’d already covered the Orioles and Redskins for two seasons apiece, this was the beat I really wanted, covering Washington’s own baseball club. The fact that the club happened to be managed by a legitimate baseball legend only sweetened the deal.

Thing was, I knew all about Robinson’s reputation. About the fearsome presence. About the way he could intimidate reporters, especially young ones who were born only a month before he retired as a player.

It was my former Washington Times colleague, Thom Loverro, who gave me the most valuable piece of advice. Having already covered him in Baltimore, Thom knew the only way to win over Robinson was to take the punch he threw in your direction and fire it right back at him.

See, Frank didn’t actually want you to be intimidated by him. He didn’t want you to fawn over him. He wanted you to have the guts to stand up to him and not cower in fear. That’s an awfully daunting assignment for anyone in baseball, let alone a reporter four decades younger than him. But it was the only way to earn his respect.

And once you broke through, once you proved to Frank you weren’t afraid of him, that’s when the fun really began.

There’s no relationship in sports quite like that of baseball beat writer and manager. You speak every day for six weeks during spring training, then twice a day during the season (before and after games). At home, with dozens of writers and broadcasters around, it’s mostly business. But on the road, with only a handful of traveling beat writers in the manager’s sessions, it turns far more informal.

There were only three of us on the beat back then: the Post’s Barry Svrluga, MLB.com’s Bill Ladson and me. Bill, who covered the Expos’ final two seasons in Montreal, already had a good, established relationship with Frank. He showed us the way to establish our own.

We’d sit in the manager’s office at Turner Field or Shea Stadium or whatever the Marlins’ old stadium was called at that moment, and with tape recorders on would run through the news of the day. Then the recorders would be turned off and we’d start talking about ... well, anything. Some baseball. Some golf. Plenty of basketball (boy, did Frank love his Lakers). Life in general.

Frank would tell stories, and the three of us, along with former Nationals PR director John Dever, would just soak it all in. Ladson and Dever, who also had relocated with the franchise from Montreal, would bring up old Expos tales and Frank would roll his eyes and laugh about the various misfortunes that befell those ragamuffin teams.

Some days, the off-the-record sessions would be brief, because Frank had work to do. Some days, especially during the second halves of seasons that had gone awry, the sessions would just keep going on. I’m pretty sure on at least one occasion we were still in the manager’s office fewer than 45 minutes before first pitch (unheard-of territory for reporters). Sometimes in those moments I think Frank just wanted to talk to anyone other than his players about anything other than baseball.

All of this left Frank with a reputation as a subpar manager. The fact he never guided a team to the playoffs or won more than 87 games in a single season only bolstered that reputation.

Here’s the thing, though: Most of Robinson’s teams actually exceeded expectations. Certainly, his Expos/Nationals teams did. Despite the chaos that was Major League Baseball’s ownership of the franchise, the added grind of playing 22 “home” games in Puerto Rico and the patchwork early days at RFK Stadium, Frank’s teams kept themselves in the pennant race into September in three of his five seasons. He received Manager of the Year votes at the end of all three of those campaigns.

The 2005 season, of course, was the most memorable. The brand-new Nationals had the National League’s best record at the All-Star break, somehow on pace to win 100 games despite a $50 million payroll and a weak lineup. Over one glorious homestand in early June, they won 10 in a row to move into first place and turn RFK into a bouncing, rollicking concrete jungle of joy for 35,000-plus fans every single night.

The team then headed west for an interleague series in Anaheim, and that was the scene of perhaps Robinson’s most memorable moment in a Nats uniform.

José Guillén, who had been dumped by the Angels the previous September and held a major grudge against them for it, tipped off Robinson that reliever Brendan Donnelly illegally used pine tar on his glove. The moment Donnelly took the mound in the top of the seventh, Frank emerged from the visitors’ dugout with his distinctive gait and asked the umpires to examine the pitcher’s glove. And when Donnelly was promptly ejected, Angels manager Mike Scioscia walked toward Robinson in a huff and informed his counterpart he’d be “undressing” every Nationals reliever who would enter the game.

You know what happened next. Frank - who, by the way, had just undergone a touch-up LASIK procedure that morning and was wearing an eye patch underneath wraparound sunglasses for a night game - went right up to Scioscia and started jawing and pointing at him as both benches and bullpens emptied.

The Nationals would go on to win the game, thanks in no small part to an absolute laser of a home run by an enraged Guillén, and Frank would go on to utter the line that so perfectly defined his public persona.

“I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me,” he said of Scioscia. “I am the intimidator.”

That’s the Frank Robinson most of the baseball world had known for five decades. The guy who always had a chip on his shoulder. The guy who believed only a handful of the sport’s very best even deserved to be mentioned in the same sentence as him.

To wit: One day during spring training in Viera, a reporter from Montreal said he wanted to ask Frank a question about former Expos catcher Gary Carter.

“Why do you want to ask me about Gary Carter?” Robinson asked with eyebrow cocked.

“Well,” the reporter tried to explain, “he’s a Hall of Famer and you’re a Hall of Famer ...”

“Uh-uh,” Frank interrupted, wagging his index finger. “He’s in the Hall of Fame. I am a Hall of Famer.”

The room went silent. Did he really just suggest what it sounded like he just suggested? Yes, he did.

Frank-Robinson-Podium-sidebar.jpgRobinson wasn’t just in the Hall of Fame. He was a Hall of Famer. And he wanted everyone to recognize the distinction.

But that was only one side of the man, the side most of the public knew. It was the other side that won him the affection of those who actually got to know him. The side that was on display May 25, 2006, after an otherwise nondescript Thursday matinee against the Astros.

Due to an unfortunate series of events that left his top two catchers (Brian Schneider and Wiki González) unavailable, Robinson had little choice but to start Matt LeCroy behind the plate that afternoon. LeCroy, a husky 30-year-old batter who came up with the Twins as a catcher but barely played the position anymore, endured through an absolute nightmare, allowing the Astros to steal seven bases.

By the top of the seventh, Frank realized he couldn’t allow this to continue any longer. The outcome of the game was now in doubt, so he had to remove LeCroy in mid-inning and send the slightly-less-disastrous Robert Fick out there to catch the rest of the game.

The Nationals hung on to win, but during his postgame press conference in the bowls of RFK Stadium, Robinson displayed no joy in the result. Ladson, as only he could, decided to press the manager for an explanation.

“Frank, I’m sorry,” Bill began, “but I have to say, you look like you just lost your best friend.”

Robinson needed several seconds to compose himself before finally answering, his eyes turning red and his voice quivering.

“I’ve never had that happen before,” the 70-year-old Hall of Famer said. “And I don’t like someone to go through what (LeCroy) had to go through today. I feel for people who have to go through something like that. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I feel for him, and I hope the fans understand.”

That wasn’t The Intimidator. That was The Old Softie, apologizing to one of his players for putting him in a position to fail, the ultimate crime for a manager.

Because deep down, Frank cared about people. Especially those who had been able to earn their way into his circle of trust. Even a young reporter.

On the day of the 2007 Home Run Derby, I was hanging around the field in San Francisco along with hundreds of other reporters and baseball dignitaries. Then up walked Frank Robinson, no longer managing the Nationals but now working for commissioner Bud Selig. It was the first time I’d seen him since he was fired at the end of the previous season, and I was thrilled simply to have a quick moment to say hi and catch up with him.

The conversation kept going, though. Frank wanted to know how I was doing, wanted to know what was going on with the Nats. I wanted to know how his golf game was and what he thought of the team from afar. We talked for a good 10-15 minutes, and little did I realize there were others hovering nearby waiting for their turn.

At one point, a prominent national broadcaster - we’re talking someone recognizable to every sports fan in America - stepped in and tried to start up his own conversation with Robinson.

“Hey,” Frank responded in a gruff manner. “I’m talking to my friend here.”

The broadcaster slinked away, apologizing to Robinson as he lavished him with praise as “one of the greatest ever.”

Frank turned back to me and rolled his eyes. Yet again someone was fawning over him. Frank hated when people fawned over him. He knew he was one of the greatest ever. He didn’t need anyone else to remind him of that indisputable fact.

I’d never experienced a moment like that in my career, and I’ll never experience another one like it.

I’ve been blessed to witness so many great players and great games and great milestones. But whenever my time is done and I look back on it all, the No. 1 thing I’ll remember is that I had the incredible fortune to talk baseball and life every day for two years with Frank Robinson: a true Hall of Famer.



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