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In D.C. dugout, Robinson is Nationals institution


WASHINGTON -- Frank Robinson might not have concrete plans for the next baseball season, at which point he will be closing in on his 71st birthday. But that's only because he doesn't know who will own - and thus determine the future of - the franchise he manages.

So, there's only one answer Robinson can give to the question of whether he'll be in Baltimore, tipping his cap to the fans who worship him still, for the first interleague visit by the Washington Nationals next summer.

"If I'm still here," Robinson said last week, face split in the familiar grin and a just-as-familiar laugh escaping him.

There aren't many rational reasons why Robinson wouldn't still be managing the Nationals a year from now, certainly not if his demeanor so far this year is any indication. He couldn't look more comfortable in the dugout or in his office at RFK Stadium, couldn't look more like he belongs there. And he literally has never sounded as much at ease as he has when bantering with reporters for a full half-hour before Nats games, or across his desk from a writer for another half-hour.

His team isn't playing like it's being run by some codger, either. Still mistaken by many for an expansion team, the Nationals entered Friday off three wins in four games against Atlanta, and going into yesterday were a half game out of first place in the National League East. It's still not farfetched to believe that both metropolitan area rivals will be playing ball in October, a time of year Robinson always has been familiar with.

The knee-jerk reaction is to think that he doesn't look as if his 70th birthday is less than three months away, or as if he's in his 53rd season in professional baseball. And certainly not as if he's 34 years removed from his last game as an Orioles player and 14 beyond the end of his O's managerial tenure.

Robinson, however, can set you straight on that topic as quickly as he's set anyone straight on any topic. "People ask me now, how does it feel to be almost 70," he said, "and I say, 'I don't know, how am I supposed to feel?'

"I feel good physically, I feel good mentally, my energy is up," he continued. "Age really is just a number, that's all it is. You could take a thousand people at that age, and there will be a whole lot of difference between them, physically and mentally."

Others may have held his age against him over the years, he said, even before he returned to the dugout in 2002 to help keep the Montreal Expos' ship afloat for Major League Baseball. But, he said, "I never held it against me."

It would be crazy to hold it against him now. He'd rather give the credit to the players who kept their heads and hearts in it while their team was being turned into nomads. But the single biggest reason the former Expos are not only existing and surviving in Washington, but also thriving two months into the season, is Frank Robinson.

One can only hope baseball appreciates what it asked Robinson to do, that it might be the toughest job a manager has ever been handed, and that they had someone available who was so willing to do it.

Robinson readily agrees with those who assume he wasn't looking to manage again, then at 66 years old, when he'd been away from the dugout for more than a decade (after Johnny Oates replaced him in May 1991). He figured he might be too old to be considered for a front office position, now that the Billy Beanes and Theo Epsteins have become the prototypes.

If he had an urge to give up being baseball's dean of discipline, he figured, it would be for a role in an ownership group. He definitely was going to stay in the game in some capacity.

"I'm not the retiring type. I'm not one to sit around," he said. "I love golf " - and he pointed to what looked like a golf-bag clearance sale in the corner of his office - "but right now I'm not going to be sitting around the house doing nothing, waiting around for a time every day to go out and play golf. I'm going to be out there in the middle of it.

"It's what I like to do. It gets in your blood."

He was talking, of course, about baseball, and the fact that he did stay in it all those years without a break, in one job at one level or another, that made the transition back to managing look as easy as it has.

"I was never not around baseball," he said. "A lot of guys in the league retire and get away from it, and then they have to make an adjustment [coming back]. But I was around it, talking to the players, understanding what they were thinking, seeing them play, seeing managers, seeing umpires, being around it all."

Robinson was exactly what the Expos needed, and so far he's been everything Washington wanted. He'll quickly repeat the mantra about fans not buying tickets to see the manager, but his presence created an instant bridge to D.C. fans, the ones getting reacquainted (or just acquainted) with baseball and the ones who had sworn their allegiance to his old Orioles, as a player and manager.

"There are still people here who don't know the Nationals are here," he said. Yet many, he added, walk up to him and recognize him, or at least say, "Hey, you look familiar."

Of course, even the most provincial local fan bleeding orange-and-black and cursing everything south of the Beltway can't hate everything about the new rivals down the road.

"Yeah," Robinson acknowledged, "a lot of them who know me, that's how they know me."

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