Robinson is Expo only in uniform

Heart still with O's, manager for '02 eyes owner, president role

By Peter Schmuck

Sun Staff

February 22, 2002


JUPITER, Fla. - Hall of Famer Frank Robinson looks so trim in his new Montreal Expos uniform that it's difficult to believe he is 66 years old or that he has spent nearly a half-century in professional baseball.

Indeed, he looks so good - so energized to be back on the field as a major-league manager- that you wouldn't know unless you asked him whether he feels a little uncomfortable in Expos attire.

"I'm wearing an Expos uniform," Robinson said yesterday, "but I consider myself a Baltimore Oriole. I'm going to do everything I can to help the Expos win this year, but I'll always be an Oriole."

No one should be particularly surprised by this. Robinson reached the pinnacle of his major-league playing career in Baltimore, where he won the 1966 American League MVP award and a world title immediately after he was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds. He also spent his most enjoyable season as a manager with the Orioles, whose amazing "Why Not?" performance in 1989 remains one of the most remarkable examples of over- achievement in baseball history.

But Robinson's emotional attachment to the franchise was sorely tested by the disappointments that followed his dismissal as manager. He moved into the front office - hoping eventually to become general manager - only to get lost in a drawn-out management shuffle when former owner Eli Jacobs was forced into bankruptcy and the team was bought at auction by Peter Angelos.

"There were no promises made, but certain things were said," Robinson said. "I was put in position for things to happen to me and for me, but they didn't happen. Just the way I was treated by the organization, it hurt. It really did.

"I gave them a lot of good years. I gave them everything I had. I just didn't think I was treated fairly at the end."

He spent nearly five years as an assistant to former club president Larry Lucchino and general manager Roland Hemond, but was fired in December 1995, soon after Pat Gillick replaced Hemond as GM.

Robinson already occupies an important place in baseball history. He was the game's first African-American manager in each league - breaking the managerial color barrier with the Cleveland Indians in 1975 and becoming the National League's first black manager when he took over the San Francisco Giants in 1981.

Now, he's focused on something even bigger - perhaps the chance to parlay his new role in Montreal into a high-ranking management position with the team if it moves to the Washington area - but he badly wanted to make his management mark in Baltimore.

"I spent five years as assistant general manager," he said. "I was self-taught. I just didn't get the help. I didn't get the cooperation I felt I would get to further myself and put myself into position to have the knowledge and experience to take the next step - to become a general manager."

Some of the residual bitterness is directed at Angelos, though he did not own the team when Robinson returned to the front office after his three-plus years as Orioles manager. "He promised some things at the end," Robinson said, "but never had the courtesy to talk to me and just say, `Hey, it just didn't work out.' "

Angelos could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Robinson moved into an executive role in the commissioner's office, coordinating the effort to reduce the time of games and later becoming the sport's czar of discipline. Perhaps that would have been the final plateau of his great baseball career if not for the fallout from commissioner Bud Selig's announcement in November that Major League Baseball intended to disband two franchises.

The strange chain of events that followed left the Expos without an owner or a front office staff. Selig asked Robinson to manage the club for the 2002 season. And that's how he came to be wearing an Expos uniform and overseeing the team's first full-squad workout yesterday at the Roger Dean Stadium complex that the Expos share with the St. Louis Cardinals.

There had been some speculation he would be the general manager - a job that went to former New York Mets assistant GM Omar Minaya - but Robinson said he was more interested in returning to the dugout.

"I didn't want anybody else managing this ballclub," he said.

For one year, history can wait, but Robinson hasn't given up hope of knocking down a few more barriers before he retires from baseball. The "burning desire" to be a general manager has passed, but it has been replaced by the motivation to open another door for minority executives.

"My focus now is to be part of an ownership group and maybe be the president of a club," he said.

It isn't difficult to put two and two together and come up with the Washington/Northern Virginia situation. The Expos don't figure to spend more than one more season in Montreal, and there is plenty of room to wonder if baseball really will go through with its plan to disband the franchise. If not, the team will need someplace to go, and the Washington area has been designated by Selig as the prime candidate for relocation.

Robinson's ties to the region would be an asset to whatever ownership group succeeds in acquiring the club, though he said it wasn't his original intention to put his foot in the door. "That's not the reason I'm here, but that's a possibility," Robinson said.

Becoming the first African-American team president in baseball wouldn't be a bad way to top off a great major-league career, something Robinson is willing to concede but insists on putting in proper perspective.

"It doesn't matter if I'm the first, second or third," he said. "It would be nice if I was the first. It's important for minorities to move into those positions, but my No. 1 desire is not to be a pioneer. My No. 1 priority is to be a baseball man. I want to contribute to this game.

"I'm a baseball man. It's in the blood."