Robinson can be sent off, but not with just a wave


Let's say the Orioles don't recover. Let's say they're buried by the All-Star break. And let's say owner Eli Jacobs' fancy Washington friends grow tired of coming to Memorial Stadium to watch a losing team.

That's your basic fire-the-manager scenario, but hold on. Frank Robinson is more entrenched in his club's hierarchy than any of his colleagues. In fact, his contract is so unusual, it complicates matters considerably.

Robinson, 55, is guaranteed a front-office position for at least one year after he departs as manager, regardless of whether he quits or gets fired. In other words, he can be dismissed, but not with a simple wave.

The unusual agreement makes Robinson seemingly immune to the enormous pressures facing other managers, but he insists that is not the case. Cleveland fired him, so did San Francisco. It can happen again.

Indeed, even if his front-office job is waiting, the Orioles could always buy him out. Robinson has emerged as a central figure in the club's management team. That doesn't mean he's a fixture.

Robinson has said he wants to manage in the new ballpark, but he does not have a long-term contract; it renews each year at both his option and the club's. His salary, believed to be in the $300,000 range, increases by set increments, and will reduce by 40 percent once he returns to the front office.

Is he secure?

"Of course not," Robinson said Wednesday before the Orioles improved their record to 7-12 entering a nine-game West Coast trip that opens tonight in California. "When you start feeling secure in this job, look out.

"I don't think anybody should ever feel secure in a job. That's when you get complacent. I can't say, 'I don't care, I'll just write out the lineup and not worry, I'm secure.' No. No way. I'm worried. I'm concerned."

About the club, that is, not his job.

"It's something that's out of my hands, out of my control," Robinson said. "If I worry about it, it will take away from what I should be concentrating on -- helping the ballclub get straightened out, get going.

"Do I think about it? Of course.

"Do I worry about it? No."

Talk-show callers will be crushed to learn that, at least for now, Robinson is safe. It's simply too early for club officials to consider making a change. If the situation doesn't improve, then it's another story.

Robinson replaced Cal Ripken Sr. after only six games in 1988, but that was under the ownership of the late Edward Bennett Williams. To this point, Jacobs has shown none of Williams' competitive fire in public. Then again, he hasn't been tested.

As far as anyone can tell, his primary interest appears to be the club's profit margin. That, and entertaining high-powered government officials -- not to mention the Queen of England -- in his private box.

Jacobs hosted a party for 600 on Opening Day, but he hardly ever speaks to Robinson or any of his other baseball executives, directing nearly all team-related matters to club president Larry Lucchino.

The question is whether his demeanor would change if the Orioles suddenly became a less attractive commodity as they prepare to move into their new downtown ballpark next season.

If attendance in either Memorial Stadium or even his private box declined, Jacobs might start pressuring Lucchino to put a better team on the field. Unlike Williams, Jacobs has no allegiance to Robinson.

Then again, if the Orioles are that bad, Lucchino and general manager Roland Hemond might not need any urging. Of course, that wouldn't solve the problem of what to do with Robinson, who ultimately wants Hemond's job.

The fact is, a front-office logjam will loom as long as both Robinson and assistant GM Doug Melvin are present. Melvin, 38, also is viewed as a potential replacement for Hemond, 60, whose contract expires this year.

The most likely scenario has first-base coach Johnny Oates becoming the next manager and Hemond moving into an executive position to make room for either Robinson or Melvin. But there's no reason to believe those changes are imminent.

If Robinson gets fired, he probably would not be happy with a nebulous "special assistant" position similar to the one Williams gave him when he restructured the front office in November 1987. But he'd probably have little choice.

It's not a pleasant thought, is it?

The club solicits input from Robinson on issues as diverse as player development and stadium planning. Even talk-show callers hold him in reverence, if only for the Hall of Fame skills he exhibited as a player.

The Orioles did not make their commitment to Robinson haphazardly: They view him as an integral part of the franchise. He won't be fired after a month. Unless things truly turn sour, he won't be fired at all.

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