NEW YORK -- Frank Robinson died on Thursday after a prolonged fight with cancer. I was at the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association's 19th annual Legends for Youth Dinner in Manhattan last November when I received word that he was battling the disease.But even before learning of his illness,
NEW YORK -- Frank Robinson died on Thursday after a prolonged fight with cancer. I was at the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association's 19th annual Legends for Youth Dinner in Manhattan last November when I received word that he was battling the disease.
But even before learning of his illness, I knew something was wrong. Frank usually attends the American League Championship Series, and hands out the trophy to the AL champions. Last October, however, TNT's Brian Anderson had the honor of giving the trophy to the Red Sox. It's not one Frank would have relinquished easily.
The past few months, the memories have hit me like you wouldn't believe. In the 16 years I knew Frank, I saw different sides to his personality, from his sensitive side to his sense of humor. And I can tell you this -- you didn't want to be on his bad side. I know firsthand.
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Getting to know him
I'll never forget when I started as an Expos beat writer in November 2002. I tried to contact Frank for two weeks without him returning my call. I wanted to get a feel for the Expos and what they were looking to acquire for the upcoming season. I didn't want to go into the season cold.
Finally, I reached him -- and he was angry. "Bill Ladson, you are a pain in the butt!" Frank barked into the phone. And then he hung up. I was shaken, but I quickly snapped out of it. It was clear I was going to have to earn my way into his confidence.
By the time Spring Training started, it was as if Frank had forgotten our initial phone call. Suddenly, we would have long conversations about the game of baseball. Sometimes, it lasted for hours. When he talked about the 1988 Orioles -- a team he managed -- Frank said losing 21 straight games to start the season was a blessing in disguise because it made the team realize that they had to get rid of their veterans and rely on younger players. The following season, Frank won the AL Manager of the Year Award for guiding the young Orioles to a surprising second-place finish.
Frank also spoke his mind to the beat writers. In early 2005, then-GM Jim Bowden compared outfielder Tyrell Godwin to Dave Roberts, who was a postseason hero with the 2004 Red Sox. Frank took one look at Godwin and wasn't impressed. Godwin went 0-for-3 in three games for the Nationals. When told what Bowden said about Godwin, Frank exclaimed, "Dave Roberts?!?"
He held his players to a high standard. In 2006, he called out infielder Damion Jackson because he couldn't advance a runner on a bunt play. That's just how he was.
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But during my four-plus years covering Frank in Montreal and Washington, I found out that he was a sensitive man, despite the rough exterior. They say there is no crying in baseball, but Frank broke that rule the first year I met him.
We were in Puerto Rico and the Expos were going to play the Athletics in Oakland, where Frank grew up, later that week. We started talking about his mother, Ruth, who raised him and his siblings by herself. She passed away in 1980 and you could see the tears flow when he talked about her. Frank said his mother had "that look," and enough toughness, to prevent Frank from becoming a hooligan in Oakland.
Frank's emotions really came out on May 26, 2006, after the Nationals defeated the Astros, 8-5, at RFK Stadium. After Frank entered the media room, he looked like he lost his best friend and I told him so. He started crying, upset that he had to remove catcher Matt LeCroy in the middle of the seventh inning after Houston had stolen seven bases.
"It was a move that I wasn't trying to embarrass him in any way," Frank said. "It was just a move, at the time, at that moment, I just felt had to do it."
LeCroy wasn't angry; he agreed with Frank's decision.
"If my daddy was managing this team, I'm sure he would have done the same thing," LeCroy said.
Frank Robinson, the manager
As a manager, Frank wasn't as successful as he was as a player. He was not into analytics; he was simply an old-school manager. He hated when a hitter struck out with runners on base because "a strikeout is a non-productive out."
When the daily reports would come in, Frank would tear them up. "[I manage the game] by feel," he'd say.
Frank was the first person to tell me that he doesn't judge a player based on batting average. This came from a Hall of Famer who won a Triple Crown in 1966 and was a .294 career hitter. He judged a hitter based on runs scored and RBIs, the ability to make a difference on the scoreboard.
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When it came to pitchers, he didn't care about strikeouts. "The most important thing," he often said, "is location. Can that pitcher throw enough strikes to win the game?"
The other media around the Expos and Nationals enjoyed my exchanges with Frank. Whenever I saw him, I started by asking how he was doing.
"You know you don't give a [bleep] how I'm doing," he'd reply. "You just want the scoop. That's all."
We often would laugh after he said it.
I always thought that he stuck with slumping players too long, and I believe it was the No. 1 reason the Nationals blew a big lead in the National League East race in 2005. They would end up in fifth place with an 81-81 record.
I would often tell Frank to bench shortstop Cristian Guzman, who was having the worst year of his career, and play Jamey Carroll, who was one of Frank's favorite players.
"We are not paying Guzman millions of dollars to sit on the bench," Frank would say.
I thought the worst move Frank made was not playing Ryan Zimmerman ahead of a struggling Vinny Castilla the moment Zimmerman arrived in September. Bowden said Zimmerman was Brooks Robinson, Scott Rolen and Mike Schmidt rolled into one.
"Why not play Zimmerman?" I asked Frank. I would get the same answer that I received regarding Guzman. I would shake my head, laugh and leave his office.
Frank Robinson, the man
Baseball wasn't the only thing we talked about. Man, did Frank love the Lakers. He was a season-ticket holder, dating back to the late 1960s, and he hated to hear that teammates Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were feuding.
Frank was also a golf fanatic. If I wanted to catch Frank on the phone, I knew I had to call him early in the morning because he was going to play golf before he went to the ballpark. Also, he would watch the Maury Povich show in his office -- you know the one, "You are not the father!" I couldn't believe the great Frank Robinson watched that show. But he did; he enjoyed it.
I remember his last day as a manager. Yes, he was crying that day, too. I always got the impression that he treasured his managerial career more than his playing career. He was 14 homers shy of 600, but we spent just as much time talking about what he accomplished as a manager with the Indians, Orioles, Giants, Expos and Nationals.
"I could have kept playing, but I really wanted to manage," Frank would often tell me.
I enjoyed every minute I was in his office, and I learned so much from him. I'm pleased the Nationals honored Frank in 2015 by putting his name in the team's Ring of Honor -- you can find his name near the right-field flagpole.
"It's important to me [to be at Nationals Park], because it makes me feel wanted and appreciated," Frank said at the time. "I always had a special place in my heart, when I left here. I still watch [the Nationals]. I'm asked who are my favorite teams, and I say they are on the East Coast -- the Nationals and the Orioles. On the West Coast, I have the Dodgers and Padres."
Frank was not only a Hall of Fame player. He was a Hall of Fame person. And I will miss him very much.
Bill Ladson has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2002. He covered the Nationals/Expos from 2002-2016. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.