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BASEBALL Robinson wants to remain until players succeed



Published: Thu, February 17, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Nationals' manager says his team is sure to flourish in Washington soon.

VIERA, Fla. (AP) -- Sixty-nine-year-old Frank Robinson walked up the dugout steps Wednesday at the Washington Nationals' spring training facility and announced he had passed his physical.

"It only took six, seven hours," he said jokingly.

Spry and sharp, Robinson is both surprised and not surprised that he's still managing, 29 years after he hit the last of the 586 home runs of his Hall of Fame career. His health is good and he still loves the game, but the deeper truth is that he's become so attached to the players who endured so much in Montreal that he wants to enjoy the fruits when -- not if -- they succeed in Washington.

"They hadn't had a winning season for a few years when I got there," Robinson said. "And when we put up back-to-back winning seasons, it was good to see the look and the smiles on the players' faces that had been through the tough times. This is what keeps you coming back, the players, the energy. If they hadn't given me the effort that they had given me over the last three years, I wouldn't be here. I really wouldn't."

Robinson expected to manage only a year when in 2002 baseball asked him to leave his job in the league office and lead the Expos, who were pegged for contraction at the end of the season.

Contraction didn't happen, so he kept coming back. Back-to-back 83-79 records were considered a remarkable achievement for a franchise in flux until injuries and the toll of the team's plight resulted in last year's 67-95 season.

Surprised to be around

"I'm kind of surprised that I'm still here because I didn't know if I was going to be healthy enough to do it," Robinson said. "Or if I wanted to do it, if I wanted to go through the grind, the travel and all that stuff, the sitting on the bench for hours on end and being at the ballpark at 12 o'clock in the afternoon for a night game.

"But I'm not surprised by my energy level. That's the one thing that's very high, and my health is good. I'm not surprised that I'm still here because I have a love for this game."

Robinson is particularly energized, as are his players, by the franchise's move to the nation's capital. A stable home with games in front of large crowds -- and no more "home" games in Puerto Rico -- should do wonders for the young team's morale. He's expecting a winning season, even though his team is the consensus choice to finish last in the NL East.

"The new surroundings, I wanted to be a part of that," Robinson said. "But it's unfinished business with this ballclub. This ballclub has its baseball in front of it right now, and I don't mean five years from now. I'm talking about the next year or two or three, and I wanted to be a part of it. We started something with these guys, and I wanted to be here when it happens."

That sure sounds like a desire to manage at least a few more seasons, assuming the team's new owners want to retain him once the ongoing sale of the team is completed.

Changes attitude

Robinson isn't nearly as crusty as he used to be, although he still needles reporters who try to needle him with their questions. He's still demanding but is more amenable to player feedback than in his days as a manager with Cleveland, San Francisco or Baltimore. He casually said the workout will be "not very hard" when pitchers and catchers take the field for the Nationals' first formal workout Thursday.

"Give him a lot of credit for keeping this ballclub together," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "I think he's one of the main people that's kept this ballclub alive and energetic. We could have very easily folded over. He keeps a positive atmosphere in the clubhouse and a positive atmosphere here on the field and expects us to do well -- no matter what the situation."

Robinson will also be able to impart firsthand knowledge of RFK Stadium, which was last used regularly for baseball long before many of his players were born. Robinson hit nine home runs as a visiting player there before the Senators left in 1971, including the stadium's last grand slam -- June 26, 1970, with the Baltimore Orioles.

"The ball flies pretty good," Robinson said. "Don't let my pitchers read that."




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