clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Waxing and waning

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Frank Robinson was drowning to death. He was a month away from a triple crown, two months away from a world championship, in the midst of capping one of the more remarkable vindication jobs in sports history, and he was drowning to death. And no one believed it. After all, he was the great Frank Robinson. How does the great Frank Robinson drown to death in a backyard pool? He can't; if he can slug baseball after baseball hundreds of feet and out of the park, surely he can handle a few feet of water.

In his recently released Black and Blue: The Golden Arm, the Robinson Boys and the 1966 World Series That Stunned America, Tom Adelman recounts the story of an alcohol-enhanced bash hosted by Fran Ruck---of all people, a funeral director---in August 1966. The Baltimore Orioles were the honored guests. Eighty wins (against forty-two losses) and a thirteen-and-a-half lead will tend to earn some acclaim from the hometown supporters. When the O's returned from Detroit on August 22, Ruck invited the players and their wives to his home in Towson.

Ruck encouraged them to have a good time, and as Adelman recounts, the alcohol flowed. (Such things happen when your team's owner also owns a brewery and when your team's left fielder, lamentably, is a hard drinker.) Once the party reached a necessary level of raucousness, Curt Blefary ordered everyone to jump in Ruck's pool or be pushed in. The pronouncement became a movement, especially after Moe Drabowski was dunked in the water, fully-clothed. Eventually, Frank Robinson's time came. He replied that he didn't swim. His teammates laughed. Robinson was a top-flight athlete; surely, he could swim.

So Robinson agreed to go in---as Adelman writes, anything for the unity of his team, a team that was foreign to him less than a year previously. Robinson planned to enter the shallow end, thereby satisfying this portion of the party, and then get back to dry land. He quickly devised this plan because what he had said was literally true: He didn't know how to swim. However, the plan turned to near-disaster when he slipped on the pool's tile and slid into the deeper end.

He panicked, flailing about, and they thought he was joking around. He calmed, trying to rise peacefully to the surface, and they thought he was joking around. No matter what he did, he entertained. At about the point Robinson was drifting in and out of consciousness, Boog Powell mentioned that Frank sure had been under a long time---as if it were a curiosity.

Andy Etchebarren thereafter jumped in the pool, dragged Robinson to the surface, and, one supposes, probably saved Frank Robinson's life---saved his life at the home of a funeral director.

* * * *

I don't know if this is a human tendency or merely my own, but my first impulse is to relate this four-decade-old story to today, Frank Robinson's final day as manager of the Washington Nationals and, more than likely, his final day of influence in a baseball uniform. I could conceive of one way to do this:

Robinson had been out of the managing game for a decade, since being fired by the very same Baltimore Orioles in 1991. He had a nice desk job with Major League Baseball; perhaps a little boring, but serving as the game's disciplinarian kept him in the game, and he loved the game. Then, with the Montreal Expos in tatters and, worse yet, owned by MLB itself, Bud Selig asked Robinson for a favor. Maybe Robinson thought he couldn't swim anymore, but maybe he also wanted to swim again. So he jumped in the pool again and managed once more. Progressively, his managerial hold became worse and worse until, this season, he flailed for a pitching staff that just didn't exist. And, whether Robinson knew it or not, it was up to Jim Bowden or Stan Kasten to jump in and drag him out of the game---out of the pool---one final time.

Perhaps that is a viable analogy, but more than likely it is all hooey. Perhaps there are other analogies, but maybe they're hooey too. I don't know.

* * * *

Frank Robinson said goodbye today, something I find myself having difficulty accepting. I don't precisely know why this is. It could be that I've been manipulated by months of stories indicating that Robinson, perhaps unjustly, had not been informed of his future---or lack thereof---in the dugout, and then by the resulting media blitz designed to honor Frank expeditiously and happily. It could also be that I'm going through one of those myopic self-reflections: the '89 Orioles and the '05 Nationals were two of my favorite teams, and Robinson managed both of them, and his immediate departure causes me to dwell on those teams. Perhaps I'm overly captivated with Frank's legacy---in recent months, I've dwelled on his biography and then his status within the inner-circle legends of the game---and just wish to explore that topic more.

I don't really know what it is, because this difficulty makes no sense.

* * * *

First things first---by which I mean, of course, after two or three "* * * *" jumps: Frank Robinson was not going to manage the Washington Nationals into the future. Everybody knew this. It was like the old Dana Carvey/George H.W. Bush routine: You know it. I know it. Barbara knows it. The janitor knows it. {List of all the people that know it.} Everybody knows it. I have to think Frank himself knew it.

It's only natural that a fairly heavy presumption applies concerning seventy-plus managers and rebuilding teams: call it the Bad-Fit Presumption. The Nats possess a stated organizational plan now. This plan dictates the team develop talent from the ground up. Patience is a watchword. (We'll see if it's a virtue.)

In 2004, the Expos played .414 baseball. In the second half of '05, the Nats played .383 ball. This season, they played .438 ball. That's 405 games of .418 ball.

Obviously, I'm omitting something: the best record in baseball over the first half of '05, that's what. But, as glorious as that was, what does it mean now? Memories, really---a blissful, improbable surge propelled by solid starting pitching, timely hitting, and win-now bullpen management. If the Nats had played even .500 ball during the second half of last season, that would have snuck them into the postseason. And then . . . no, it didn't happen. They played .383 ball.

Great memories don't rebut the Bad-Fit Presumption. In fact, great memories are something of a sign of the presumption. If your case to remain is predicated on great memories, then more than likely you offer something based on the past. And that's a bad fit when your team says it wants to build for the future.

It wasn't that Frank had to go. It was more like the organization was ready to go without Frank.

* * * *

Simply put, Frank fulfilled his purpose. That's the way of the baseball world, the hallmark of the managerial profession. One guy is brought in to do a particular job; once he does that job, the club no longer needs him. It's nothing personal---well, sometimes it certainly seems personal---but it's the way these things work. It's time for the next guy. In our particular circumstance, as fans of the Washington Nationals, this first guy is the great Frank Robinson, and the next guy, Frank's successor, will be no one of any particular consequence. Rumors have linked Bowden and Tony Pena. Guess what? Pena's a long-time baseball man, a respected player, a former manager who guided the Kansas City Royals to their first winning season since Hal MacRae was lobbing telephones around his office like nobody's business, and Pena's a baseball peon compared to Frank Robinson. But he'll succeed Frank---or somebody else will---and it will more than likely be the right move. And then Frank's successor will fulfill his purpose (hopefully, molding young talent into professionals ready to contend), and it will be time for next-next guy: the guy after the guy after Frank. That guy will be the one brought into to win some pennants. Book it.

Remove the emotion or the nostalgia for a moment, and what is happening is as dry as it is cyclical in baseball history---one guy does his job and is replaced by another guy, who does his job, and then the job goes to yet another guy, and so forth. The needs of an organization change; when that occurs, the on-field leadership often must change.

Thus, the inquiry isn't really whether Frank Robinson did a "good" job or a "bad" job as manager of the Natspos, and it isn't whether he "deserves" the "right" to return as manager. Certainly, Frank did some, well, interesting things as manager; he also experienced some unexpected success. All things equal---and, of course, the point is they aren't equal for this franchise---and two winning seasons, two losing seasons, and a break-even season in five tries is a pretty sporting effort.

But that's not the inquiry. Instead, the issue is whether Frank fulfilled his role as caretaker of a downtrodden and vagabond franchise. He did, and he did so faithfully; hell, his first general manager left for another team, while the season was still running. I've heard things and read stuff about Frank's time in Montreal. It's not altogether honorable. But, whether it's true or not, it's also irrelevant. He remained, and he took care of this organization for a half-decade, serving as one its very few constants.

And here we get to the heart of the matter: Frank Robinson is a servant of baseball. I mean that literally, without any other unintended connotation. Everything I know about Frank indicates that loves the game of baseball greatly, perhaps second only to his family---and perhaps, in a sense I can't fully understand, co-equal with his own family. I suspect he knows his place in the game's history. He mainly starred in Cincinnati and Baltimore, and from what I understand, he never projected a particularly charismatic or welcoming demeanor. Unlike Mantle or Mays or Clemente, his stardom did not really transcend the baseball field. He was, in a sense, Hank Aaron, except for the longest time he was fourth instead of first.

Frank Robinson's place in the game is on the field and in the clubhouse. One suspects that's why he's the one inner-circle Hall of Famer still in those places past the age of seventy.

Until today.

* * * *

Robinson said that he's never done anything harder than announcing his goodbye. One supposes he'll stay active, but not really active, if you know what I mean. But he's a respected man who can spot talent. If he were to devote his time re-igniting the spark of inner-city baseball, as he's said he wants to do, I'm certain plenty of people would listen. If he were to do some scouting for a ballpark, I'm sure his eye would be keen.

So tip your cap to Frank today, as he moves on to another phase of life. There's no need to do anything outrageous like retiring his number. Who knows if he'd even want that. As Adelman recounts, they once named a street after Robinson---and Robinson essentially thanked the street for the honor. But do tip your cap. He's served the franchise we root for well. It is no doubt to move on, but remember that success isn't always measured in wins and losses.