Robinson at Center of Nationals' Success

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At the age of 69, Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame slugger and longtime manager, is leading the surprising Washington Nationals in a memorable season.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

There's a showdown tonight for first place in the National League East, the Atlanta Braves vs. the Washington Nationals. The fact that the Braves are on top is no surprise; they've won 13 straight divisional titles. But the Nationals, the team formerly known as the Montreal Expos? That's a bit of a shock. A driving force behind the team's success is Hall of Fame manager Frank Robinson. He knows from experience what it means to prove people wrong. NPR's Charles Edwards has this profile.

CHARLES EDWARDS reporting:

Frank Robinson has been a part of some great teams during his 50 years in baseball. However, the 69-year-old says he's having more fun with the Washington Nationals than he's ever had before.

Mr. FRANK ROBINSON (Manager, Washington Nationals): I would say everybody in that clubhouse out there, every player--which is very unusual--I feel like I can kid with and joke with, and they can do the same with me. So that's what makes it so nice about it this year.

EDWARDS: Winning also helps. The Nationals have surprised the baseball world with a record of 55 wins and 44 losses. Experts predicted the Nats, as they're called, would finish last in the National League East. That's because they're basically the same team that lost 95 games last season as the Montreal Expos. Robinson told his team not to listen to the critics.

Mr. F. ROBINSON: We felt like we had an opportunity to win coming out of spring training despite what people said. And I told the players that, you know, no matter what you look like on paper, the way you're going to win games is out on the field.

EDWARDS: Robinson learned that in firsthand. In his rookie season, he tied the major-league record for home runs by a first-year player with 38. Then, after nine superstar seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in December of 1965. Reds General Manager Bill DeWitt felt Robinson was `an old 30.' The next year, the guy who was an old 30 won the American League Most Valuable Player award, and led Baltimore to its first World Series championship. Fellow Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson--no relation--was on that team. He says Frank Robinson's `prove-'em-wrong' attitude has had an impact on the Nationals.

Mr. BROOKS ROBINSON (Former Teammate of Frank Robinson): I think a lot of it is because of Frank Robinson, because he's got these guys believing they can win. I mean, going into spring training this year, who expected the Nationals to be where they are? It's very contagious. And Frank's got that winning attitude, and it's rubbed off on a lot of these young guys.

EDWARDS: Guys like All-Star relief pitcher Chad Cordero.

Mr. CHAD CORDERO (Relief Pitcher, Washington Nationals): He's shown a lot more enthusiasm this year, and he's a lot more excited. You know, and he jokes around a lot more than he did last year and stuff, you know. That's probably because we were losing a lot last year and now we're winning this year. So--but I mean, he's--you know, you can definitely see, you know, that he's getting his energy and excitement back.

EDWARDS: Excitement that critics said Robinson did not have in Montreal. They said he was more interested in playing golf than being a manager. However, there was no mistaking Robinson's fire last month, when he got an umpire to eject an Angels pitcher for having an illegal substance in his glove. Angels manager Mike Scioscia took offense and got in Robinson's face; big mistake, says Brooks Robinson.

Mr. B. ROBINSON: I was watching that; I saw a replay. And when Scioscia said something to him, I said, `Uh-oh, you're getting in trouble, big boy,' 'cause Frank started to come after him then.

EDWARDS: Frank Robinson says he's had that hard-nosed attitude since his Little League days in Oakland, California.

Mr. F. ROBINSON: As the games go along and incidents come about, you know, like being thrown at and hit and that type of thing, well, you can't let those things get in your head because that's what the pitchers are trying to do, intimidate you.

EDWARDS: Robinson tried to get the upper hand on pitchers by crowding the plate in his batting stance. He refused to be intimidated as a player, or as baseball's first black manager with the Cleveland Indians in 1975, and he's tried to give that same mental toughness to his Washington Nationals. And it seems to be working. The Nationals have found a way to win even though they don't score many runs or hit with power. They've also been plagued with injuries and, as Robinson knows, as the season progresses, wins will be harder to come by.

Mr. F. ROBINSON: We have to play good baseball 'cause everybody's going to be coming after us. And we're just going to have to go out and--I mean, kind of almost duplicate the first half and to be successful. And I think we have a great opportunity this year, and we want to take advantage of it.

EDWARDS: All year, the Nationals have taken advantage of their underdog status. And during the sweltering days of summer, Frank Robinson will have to use all his experience to keep his team in the hunt. Charles Edwards, NPR News, Washington.

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