Number 20 turned 80 today. Hall of Fame player and former Montreal Expos and Washington Nationals' manager Frank Robinson was born eighty years ago today, on August 31, 1935 in Beaumont, TX.
The veteran of twenty-one major league campaigns as a player and seventeen seasons as a skipper, spent his final two years on the bench as a manager in the majors in the nation's capital in 2005-2006, leading the then-recently relocated franchise to a 152-172 record.
When he visited Nationals Park earlier this season and had his name added to the so-called Ring of Honor that wraps around the facade of the second deck of the ballpark, Robinson spoke with reporters about that first season in D.C. in '05, when he helped bring baseball back to Washington after a 34-year absence.
Robinson and the Nationals went 52-36 in the first half of that season, and were in first place in the NL East as late as July 24th before things fell apart.
"I take a lot of pride in it," Robinson said of the inaugural campaign. "The players were great... we were excited about it. It was a good situation for us coming away from Montreal although it was kind of bittersweet leaving those fans up there because those 5,000 die hard fans were great. But it was good to be coming to an exciting team and fans that were ready to support their team coming to this [city]."
"From day one until the All-Star Break was over, it was exciting times here," Robinson reminisced.
"It's just like a magical thing that was happening to this ballclub. The players really put the effort into it. They did all they had to do, whenever we needed something late in the ball game, they got it done. I was calling my family after the game and saying, "We won another one' and [they] said 'We know!' It was exciting.
"The only thing that I regret is that we weren't able to finish it off. I would have loved to finish it off for the fans here and this organization and it didn't happen, but I'm very proud of that team."
He also talked of being grateful that the fans in Washington and the Nationals embraced him as their first manager and eventually a part of D.C. baseball history, and talked about reconnecting with players he knew then, like Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond.
"It's important to me because it makes me feel... wanted a little bit. Appreciated. I'll always have a special place in my heart [for this team]."
Robinson said he thought of his former players as family.
"I'm always glad to see those guys, because they're very outstanding people," he said.
"Not just good baseball players, but they're outstanding people. I appreciate them thinking about me and keeping me alive in their lives. I feel very special about them and they have a very special place in my life."
Six years after he left the Nationals, Robinson returned to throw out the first pitch before the first postseason game in D.C. in over 79 years.
He talked then about the excitement it generated, seeing a ballpark full of dedicated fans and how it finally fulfilled the expectations everyone had when they moved from Montreal.
"That's what we hoped," Robinson said.
"We'd like to have done it and we thought we had a good chance of doing it in '05, the first year. We had a terrific first-half and someone turned the switch off when we went to break and a different team came back after the break, but it was fun the first half of the season."
Asked if he was surprised how quickly or alternately how long it took the Nationals to build a team capable of making it to the postseason, Robinson said it took a lot of hard work to turn the franchise around.
"They knew when they got here and got new ownership and whatever that they had to rebuild the minor league system and be patient with the young players and build from within.
"That's the way you build a winner and that's the way you have a consistent winner and [Mike] Rizzo and his staff have done a tremendous job rebuilding the minor league system and developing the young players and mixing in some veteran players and the coaching staff has done an outstanding job. It came a little quicker than I thought it would, but after last year I felt good about this franchise having an opportunity to do something probably this year if not next year, so it's come a year sooner."
He expressed the same optimism about what the future holds when he talked about how far the franchise has come earlier this season.
"Ownership is very good here, and backs the team to put the best players they can on the field," he said.
"Whether it's free agency or through the minor league system. I think that's the biggest thing here: this organization has built up a tremendous minor league system to the point that when they really kinda need a player because of an injury or something they can go to the minor leagues. They don't have to make a trade or anything like that. And that's what makes a consistent winner. They're right there now. They're there. It's only a matter of time. And in the next few years, if not this year, you're gonna see a World Series flag flying from the flagpole in centerfield."
It's going to take a lot of hard work and a little luck for it to happen this year, and the roster will change this winter, but if Robinson's right, the Nationals will continue to be competitive.