Remembering Robbie

February 8, 2019
 
Few players have made a stronger visceral impression on me than seeing young Alfonso Soriano. I remember watching him early in 2001, when the Yankees came to Fenway Park. He was a touted prospect who hadn’t done anything in the majors, but he looked like he was going to be a star. Watching the Yankees warm up, I remember that my eyes kept finding him, kept getting drawn to him. He looked like he was going to be great.
 
Alfonso Soriano wasn’t great. He was a very good player for a very long time, but he had deficiencies in his game. He was old for a rookie, and he wasn’t really suited to play the infield. He had a tendency to be lazy, to not concentrate. At his best, he has the skills to be one of the game’s best, but Soriano was too often indifferent, and baseball is cruel to the indifferent.
 
This isn’t about Alfonso Soriano, of course. This is about Frank Robinson, who passed away yesterday at the age of 83.
 
I wasn’t alive for any part of Frank Robinson’s playing career, so I cannot speak to what kind of a player he was. Or I can, but only to the numbers and reputation. His numbers are great. In an era that was almost preposterously rich with outfielders (Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Snider, Yaz, Kaline, Clemente), Frank Robinson more than held his own, winning two MVP awards and a Triple Crown, and leading five teams to the World Series. He was a terrific competitor and an important trailblazer. By any measure, Frank Robinson was one of the all-time greats.
 
I wasn’t alive when Robinson became the first black manager in baseball, and I have no discernible memories of his years as the manager of the Giants, Orioles, or Expos. The only vivid remembrance I have of Robinson is from his last season as the manager of the Washington Nationals, and while it’s a minor remembrance in a rich and storied career, I’ve thought about it a lot over the years.
 
It concerns Alfonso Soriano.
 
I said that Alfonso Soriano looked like a star in 2001. He had a star-making moment in Game Seven of the World Series that year, hitting a solo homerun off Curt Schilling in the 8th inning to break a 1-1 tie. Alfonso held serve the next season, mashing 39 homers and stealing 41 bases for a Yankees team that won 103 games. He went 38/35 the next year, and then was traded nearly straight up for Alex Rodriguez (I think there might’ve been cash considerations).
 
After two years decent-but-not-impressive seasons in Texas, Soriano was traded to the Washington Nationals, who were looking for a star player to make attractive to fans a lineup whose star attraction was Nick Johnson.
 
The Nationals, recognizing that Soriano wasn’t a serviceable defensive second baseman, wanted him to play in the outfield. Soriano wanted to play second base. A minor standoff occurred, with Soriano sitting out a couple spring training games before the Nationals threatened him with disqualification, which would mean a forfeiture of both his salary and his free agent status at the end of the season. Soriano caved.
 
By that point in his career, Soriano had gained a reputation as a slacker, as a non-hustler. He had pissed off Rangers management by not running out grounders, and there were a couple times when he’d knock one off the wall and have just a single to show for it, because he thought he had a homer.
 
Two games into the 2006 regular season, Soriano hit a high pop-up. This was at Shea Stadium, and Soriano didn’t bother to leave the batter’s box. When he got back to the dugout, Robinson politely pointed out where on the bench Soriano could enjoy the rest of the game. ‘Politely’ isn’t the right word: Robinson made sure that Soriano knew he was getting benched, and why.
 
I am not, by nature, particularly deferential to baseball’s old school. I like bat flips and bombast, and I am skeptical when people bring the subject of intangibles into a game that has plenty of tangible elements and events.
 
But in the specific case of Robinson v. Soriano, I thought Robbie did everything exactly right. I thought Robinson’s handling of Soriano were the actions of a great manager, and those actions have influenced how I’ve thought about managers in baseball ever since.
 
Alfonso Soriano was a star. In coming to Washington, he was joining a team of castoffs and hopefuls, the dregs of a team that had been strip-mined and then migrated from Montreal a year earlier. The team won 81 games the year before, a feat that surprised everyone. The Nationals were a young team with almost no identity but some promise, playing in a city that still hadn’t made up its mind about them.
 
Putting this not-very-delicately: Soriano came in to the situation in Washington like a grade-A jackass. He was going to be a free agent at the end of the season, and he came in acting like the team was lucky to be graced with his presence. He came in making demands: Soriano wasn’t going to move positions because it would help the team, because that’s not what a star does. He wasn’t really on the team: he was just making a cameo in DC before something better came along.
 
Robinson, with two actions, relayed to Soriano that acting like an entitled jackass just wasn’t going to be an option under his watch.He communicated that Soriano had two options: get in line as a member of this team, or go home.
 
Many managers would have failed this scenario. Many managers, faced with a star player bitching in spring training, would sit on their hands and wait, and pray that the problem would resolve itself. Robinson didn’t wait: he acted immediately and decisively. Robinson had a team on the upswing, and he wasn’t going to let the issue of where Soriano was going to play fester until it polluted the team. He recognized the problem and dealt with it before the season started. Soriano was going to play outfield, or he wasn’t going to play anywhere.
 
And when Soriano didn’t run out a pop-fly during the second game of the season, Robinson benched him. The message is easy enough to interpret: everyone on this team is going to make the effort. No one is exempt.
 
I wasn’t writing about baseball in 2006, but I was starting to think about baseball a great deal, in a deliberate way. I followed the standoff between Soriano and Robinson, and I remember thinking at the time, "if he doesn’t quit, Alfonso Soriano is going to have a big year."
 
It was an instinctual thought, but I had a sense that Soriano had found, in Robinson, the first manager who had ever really challenged him, the first manager who had taken the chance of really pushing him.
 
And…it happened. After being benched by Robinson, Soriano had the best season of his career. He crossed the elusive 40-40 mark easily, hitting 46 homeruns and stealing 41 bases.
 
More significantly, Soriano became a greater player. Prior to coming to the Nationals, Soriano had always been one of those annoying leadoff hitters who never walks: he had walked 33 times in 2005 and 33 times in 2004. Under Robbie, his walk rate doubled to 67 free passes. And Soriano, a defensive liability at second base, excelled in the job of reluctant outfielder, pacing the league in assists (22) and double plays (9), both by wide margins. By all metrics, the 2006 season was the best of Soriano’s career.
 
I have no idea how much credit Robinson should get for Soriano’s 2006 season: I am only speculating. My belief is that Robinson, in those two decisions early in the season, ended up painted Soriano into a corner: he couldn’t be a prima donna making demands as the star of the team because Robinson wasn’t going to let that happen, and he couldn’t slack off until he cashed in as a free agent, because Robinson wasn’t going to allow that. Soriano was going to have to make the effort, and he was going to have to be a decent teammate. That was his only way out of the corner.
 
That is speculation, but it’s shaped my thinking about baseball tremendously over the years. It’s a hard thing to manage professional athletes, and it’s hard thing to organize a team so that the individual parts can come together and win baseball games. Management is an area of the game that sabermetrics has a great deal of difficulty accessing, and so it’s one of the areas we tend to shy away from. That’s probably for the best, but we’re missing something that is interesting.
 
Frank Robinson gave me a way into thinking about that side of the game. Maybe I’ve thought about it too much, and maybe I’ve granted it too much importance, but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.
 
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidFlemingJ1, and by e-mailing him at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

Manushfan
Frank Robinson was one of the top 25 most important players in the game's history. You don't replace someone like that.
10:28 AM Feb 9th
 
mskarpelos
The current Giants TV broadcasters, Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow, played for Frank Robinson in the early 1980s. They tell wonderful stories about what it was like to play under him--how they both feared him and loved him, which according to Machiavelli should be impossible but there it is.

The only time I ever spoke to Frank Robinson was when I called in to KNBR Sports-Talk 68 and tried to convince him that he would eventually lose his job if he continued to bat Johnny LeMaster leadoff. Like any good manager, he valiantly defended Lemaster, and of course he eventually lost his job. I think he learned a lot from his years managing the Giants which helped him in subsequent managing stints.

He grew up in Oakland and played ball for those great McClymonds High teams that included Curt Flood and Vada Pinson. As an east bay kid myself, I felt an affinity with him because of that connection.

May God comfort his close friends and family, and may his memory be eternal.
9:16 AM Feb 9th
 
evanecurb
It looked to me like Neifi was trailing the third baseman down the line so that he remained a little closer to third than the fielder was. I say that because he wasn't really running; he was standing still. I don't think it's smart; I just think that's what he was doing.
8:06 AM Feb 9th
 
wovenstrap
Neifi's position on the basepaths is consistent with him not understanding something. On what theory is he halfway to home plate when the ball hits the ground in a situation where, if the Expos do catch it, he definitely does have to tag up?
7:28 AM Feb 9th
 
JimPertierra
To me, who worshipped at the altar for #20, he was the most overlooked great player I have ever had the pleasure to watch. The final insult was 3 years ago when the poll was taken (just after the passing Stan Musial) to name the 4 greatest living ballplayers. While I will never say that Johnny Bench was not a great ballplayer, how Frank could have been passed over just left me speechless.

In a career of greatness, the two Frank Robby moments that are etched in my memory are the shot of Don Drysdale's head hanging, but not looking, as Frank hits a homer for the only run (and the last run) in the 1966 World Series and Frank sliding into home plate under the spikes of a leaping Manny Sanguillen scoring the winning run in the sixth game of the 1971 World Series. That competitive fire never flickered.

Best/Jim
6:39 AM Feb 9th
 
shthar
The nationals weren't just a team of dregs, they were a team that had been abandoned by thier owners and run out of town by the villagers. With Rakes and Torches!
8:08 PM Feb 8th
 
youngc
I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins during 1968-72. It was a great time to be an Orioles fan. Memorial Stadium was just a few blocks from the campus, and they’d let students into the upper deck for $1; they had cheap crab cake sandwiches, too. FRobbie, as they called him in Baltimore to distinguish from his twin brother BRobbie, was my favorite player. Super-sub Merv Rettenmund, another fave of mine, used to explain why Earl Weaver wouldn’t let him start in the outfield by saying, “Don Buford is the greatest leadoff man in baseball, and Paul Blair is the best defensive centerfielder there is. And Frank is Frank.”

Charles Young
5:42 PM Feb 8th
 
bearbyz
It is interesting Jon Miller didn't think Neifi knew the rule, but he didn't look at anyone before tagging home. I think he was playing possum.
2:42 PM Feb 8th
 
tkoegel
Don't know if I can make this link work. But to get a sense of the man--his baseball presence, his competitive fire, and his integrity--take a look at this clip from when he was managing the Expos against the Giants in 2003.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gbuv96a26qU

Basically, Neifi Perez caught the Expos players napping on an infield-fly rule play with the bases loaded. Since the force is off when the IFR is called, Neifi was able to advance at his own peril from third to home. And stepped on home without being tagged and thus scored. Robinson came roaring out of the dugout. One might've thought he'd angrily argue the call. Instead he came out to tell his players they were idiots (one suspects stronger words may have been used) and to get back to their positions. Awesome.

If the link doesn't work, just Google Frank Robinson Neifi Perez and you'll find it.
1:35 PM Feb 8th
 
Allen Schade
Wonderful article Dave.

I always included Robinson as one of my all time outfielders whenever we played Who was the Greatest? Over Clemente. And Mays And Aaron.

And those guys were Gods!

I'm a big NY Giants fan. And Odell Beckham is my love /hate guy. When he pulls his childish crap the first thing I thought of was how Robinson would have handled it.

Thanks for sharing.
1:27 PM Feb 8th
 
smbakeresq
I grew up in Baltimore but after the Frank Robinson era as I was born in 1969. One thing that always struck me over the years is how underrated Frank Robinson was in the public perception of the game while all the time being highly visible throughout the game by playing, coaching, managing and various position in MLB itself. In Baltimore he was also highly visible on civil rights issues in a town that frankly still has problems with race.

Somehow though in a conversation with most people about the greatest players in the game or in an era he is "Oh yeah, him too" kind of player.​
11:17 AM Feb 8th
 
MarisFan61
Thanks for the article. I was glad to see on the main page that we have an article on Robinson -- and you do it from a different and unexpected angle.

And, from this article, I learn that Soriano evidently became a different kind of player than he'd been in his earlier years, and it helps me understand why we sometimes see people quasi-idolizing him and even trying to talk about him as a Hall of Fame candidate without seeming too ridiculous. In his years on the Yanks, he seemed to be exactly what you say here up-top, plus one further thing: He seemed, frankly, a little stupid in how he would flail at low-outside breaking balls again and again. That's my main post-season memory of him, not the 2001 home run.

The "jackass" thing you talk about was in full force during the off-season before spring training that year. It was widely reported that he was going to refuse to play the outfield. In large part because he was going to be playing under Frank Robinson, I was thinking the whole time with a bemused smirk: yeah sure. When he actually carried it into spring training, it felt like pretty much like a recent political thing I won't name: you just knew it wouldn't end on the guy's terms, and unlike the shutdown (dam, I slipped and named it), you knew it would be real soon.
I didn't know he became that different kind of player, and I see no reason not to give most of the credit to Robinson.
10:37 AM Feb 8th
 
steve161
My goodness, Dave, you are almost unforgivably young. I was 11 when Frank Robinson came up and 32 when he retired. His was an era of megastars, of Willie Mays and Henry Aaron, and both the numbers and my eye say that they were a tick better. Perhaps because he didn't grow up in the South, however, he was more assertive than either of them, which is no doubt why he became a manager and they didn't.

Reggie Jackson once claimed to be the most significant black in baseball history after Jackie Robinson. Hogwash, of course. If Frank Robinson had made that assertion about himself, however, it would at the very least had a ring of plausibility.
10:08 AM Feb 8th
 
nettles9
An excellent microcosm of Frank Robinson. Great article, sir.
9:11 AM Feb 8th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Excellent piece, Dave, with plenty of close observations.
9:03 AM Feb 8th
 
 
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