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Time with Orioles stands out most for Frank Robinson

As a player and manager, Frank Robinson represented seven major league organizations in eight cities.

These days, he lives about 2,700 miles away in the Los Angeles area and makes it back to Baltimore only about two or three times a year.

But when Robinson gets stopped in the street, wherever he is, there's one team people almost always ask him about.

"People will say, 'I remember you, you played with the Orioles,'" Robinson said. "I'll say, 'Well, I played 10 years with Cincinnati first.'

"'Oh, you did?'"

Robinson acts out the quizzical look that piece of information elicits, then breaks into a grin.

Despite everywhere he has been, Baltimore is still home to the 76-year-old's greatest baseball memories. And on Saturday, Robinson will become a permanent part of the city's baseball home.

Robinson will be the first Orioles legend to have his statue unveiled beyond the left-center-field wall at Camden Yards before Saturday's game against the Oakland Athletics. By the end of the season, his likeness will be joined by those of fellow Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson, Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr.

"It's like a team going in together," said Frank Robinson, who played with, played for or managed each of the other five. "I can't put it in words. It's a tremendous honor. I didn't think about anything like that when I was playing the game, that one day [I] would have a statue at a major league ballpark. I don't know if I've wrapped my thoughts around it yet, but I will."

Of those six, Robinson will be honored first by virtue of being the first Oriole to have his number retired by the club. Otherwise, leading off is somewhat foreign territory for the former outfielder and first baseman who built a reputation as being one of the most feared middle-of-the-lineup hitters in the game.

In 21 major league seasons, Robinson was an All-Star 14 times, a Most Valuable Player once in each league, and won the American League triple crown in 1966, his first year in Baltimore. When he retired in 1976, he ranked fourth all time with 586 home runs (he's now ninth).

Robinson averaged 32 homers during his 10 years with the Reds to start his career, but he said he feels he "grew up here" in Baltimore, where he helped lead the Orioles to four pennants and two World Series championships in six seasons.

"We were more like a family here," he said. "We enjoyed the game, we'd joke and we'd kid, and we played the game the way it was supposed to be played. … You play to win, and we won."

If Robinson grew up during those years, he also played a part in maturing the Orioles.

As most teams did, the Orioles in those days would fraternize with opposing players before games. That stopped after Robinson arrived.

"We were over doing that one day, and he said, 'What the hell are you doing? We're here to beat their [behind],'" said Boog Powell, an outfielder-first baseman who played 14 years in Baltimore, then two under Robinson in Cleveland. "That was kind of his way of making a point, and I think he did a pretty good job of it."

Robinson also presided as judge of the Orioles' kangaroo court, in which players were fined a dollar — and an incalculable amount of their pride — for transgressions ranging from their actions off the field to not getting a runner in from third with less than two outs.

"He was all about team, and he made you be all about team," former Orioles outfielder Paul Blair said. "No individuals stood out to him. Even though he and Brooks were the stars, he made sure everybody knew they were an equal part of the team."

Powell said Robinson's brand of stern, "serious fun" worked for that group, but it wasn't as well received in Cleveland, where Robinson was named player-manager in 1975, becoming the first black manager in the big leagues.

After also managing the San Francisco Giants, Orioles and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, Robinson now serves as a senior adviser for baseball commissioner Bud Selig. He said his current duties include evaluating Major League Baseball's youth academies and programs, and as part of that, he was on hand last Saturday to watch the championship game of the President's Cup high school tournament at Camden Yards.

Sitting in the press box, looking out toward the space that will soon house his bronze statue, Robinson said he couldn't yet envision the scene that awaits Saturday. He didn't want to get too far ahead of himself and try to imagine what the honor will feel like, and he didn't want a sneak peek at the final version of the statue.

But peering toward the field, he had no problem looking back to the years that have made him such an icon here.

"All I can say is, it was fun," he said, "Those six years were fun. We enjoyed each other as a team and a front office. And the fans were just terrific. That's what makes a good organization — the fans. They make you want to have success, and the more they get behind the team, the more you want to win for the fans. And we had that here."

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