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Bye-bye Frank: The Nats Get Serious

In last night's 14-inning thriller at RFK, a team that in theory is just playing out the few remaining games of the season instead did everything a fan could ask for, battling back again and again in a valiant effort to stop the Phillies from squeezing into the playoffs.

The Nationals have been mediocre in drawing fans and darn-near miserable on the field this year, and even amid last night's extra-innings excitement, you could easily see one big reason for the team's overall malaise: The manager is seriously deficient. In the 14th inning, Frank Robinson was reduced to using pitcher Beltran Perez as a pinch-hitter. The box score will reflect that this was a brilliant move, as Perez thrilled what was left of the crowd by slamming a persuasive single to right. But really, there's no way Robinson should have been in a position to have to use a pitcher as a pinch-hitter, even in the 14th inning. Yet this kind of thing happens all the time under Robinson. Last night, the Nats used eight pitchers (the Phils used nine), yet the Nats were stuck using Jason Bergmann for the last four innings, while the Phils were rolling in relatively fresh arms every inning or so. Throughout his time with the team, Robinson has consistently used up pitchers way before their time.

A Sports Illustrated poll of major leaguers last month found Robinson to be the single worst manager in the majors. So it is with great relief that many Nats fans will greet this morning's Barry Svrluga story reporting that Frank is going bye-bye.

Oh, there'll be some whining from nostalgics about what a great guy Robinson is and how he stabilized a sinking franchise and did something with next-to-nothing. And there will be calls for a proper tribute to a great player who broke the race barrier for managers, and that would indeed be the right thing to do. But let's face it: He's not a good manager and never has been. As Barry notes, he has all of five winning seasons in his 15 years of managing. He's a difficult and sometimes nasty guy. Above all, he's just not a very sharp or interesting tactician. He carries grudges against players that seem to have little connection to their talents. His misuse of pitchers is evident in the relative success of so many Nats pitchers once they leave Washington. He has his good side, of course: He is loyal, sometimes to a fault. He seems to be especially effective with some young players who perhaps remind him of his younger self; most recently, Nook Logan seems to fit that mold. Robinson figured out how to handle Jose Guillen and managed to keep the famously volatile player under control for his entire tenure with the Nationals.

But it is indeed time for the Nats to move on, and the apparent decision to jettison Robinson is a good sign that the Lerner family is serious about making real improvements in this team. The off-season will be the true test of the willingness of the Lerners to spend money on talent, but for now, this is as good a signal as we're likely to get that they mean business. The new owners started off with a bang, making significant improvements in RFK and the fan experience during the game. The Presidents Race is an instant winner, something fans and casual visitors love. The food is somewhat better, the offerings more varied. The concession stands are staying open longer, though it's still hard to buy much after the 7th inning. The Nats are finally on Comcast cable, though that happened only in the final weeks of the season, to virtually no effect since the team was already an afterthought in baseball's race to the finish line.

But the stadium project is a mess and the hope that the Lerners' development experience would mean that they would be a creative and energetic partner in creating a new neighborhood around the Southeast ballpark seems to be dashed. The ugly combination of a lame duck mayor, squabbling developers, and an overall lack of leadership has stymied efforts to open the stadium on time with an attractive and early start on the larger development scheme. Instead, in 2008, we're likely to see an orphan ballpark in a sea of surface parking lots and nasty-looking vacant properties. Not good.

The Lerners still have their work cut out for them. They need to keep building the team's minor leagues and collecting prospects, but they also need to find a couple of marquee players to revive fan hopes for at least a .500 season next year--or else attendance is likely to stay depressed. They need to pump up the promotion machine, big time. And they need to land a first-rate manager. The amazing catch would be Joe Girardi, the likely NL Manager of the Year, who is bizarrely caught up in a tiff with the owner of the Florida Marlins. More likely, they might land Tony Pena, a Yankees coach who managed the KC Royals from 2002 to 2005, winning Manager of the Year honors in '03.

This will be a busy off-season for the owners and GM Jim Bowden, and what happens between now and March will very much determine the face and shape of the team that moves into the new stadium in 2008. A new manager, new players, and the Lerners' next big political challenge: creating an effective working relationship with Mayor-to-be Adrian Fenty, who opposed the baseball deal every step of the way. Oy vey.

By Marc Fisher |  September 28, 2006; 8:56 AM ET
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Comments

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Didn't Tony Pena manage the KC Royals?

Posted by: Arlington, VA | September 28, 2006 9:51 AM

Yup... That's what I was about to say. Tony managed them for a while.
http://newyork.yankees.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/team/coach_staff_bio.jsp?c_id=nyy&coachorstaffid=120370

Posted by: Greg | September 28, 2006 9:56 AM

As I was 18 when the Os won their first title in 1966, due in large part to Frank Robinson's hitting and clubhouse leadership, I do feel a twinge of sadness about seeing his career end.

On the other hand, the guy is 70+ years old
and that's a trifle superannuated for a big league manager. Hell, I'm 58 and can barely stay up past 10 p.m. myself.

While I agree with Marc re Frank's managerial record, I'd like to point out that great players seldom make great managers. Robinson was such a ferocious competitor as a player--and possessed of such tremendous natural talent--that he had a hard time dealing with players less competitive and less talented. Which just happens to be nearly everyone in the game of baseball. The last great player to manage in DC, Ted Williams, quickly became bored with the job after a good first year because his players weren't, well, Ted Williams.

Jim Leyland never did anything in the majors, yet he guided the Tigers to the playoffs this year after many years in the wilderness. And he was a big success in Pittsburgh too. It is usually the baseball "lifers"--guys who put in a lot of time on the bench and in the bullpen studying the game--who make the best managers.

Posted by: Jack | September 28, 2006 10:08 AM

Absolutely right on Pena--I will fix. Thanks.

Posted by: Fisher | September 28, 2006 10:16 AM

I agree that Frank's a legend, but also agree a new manager has been needed all season. Bowden shares the blame for leaving dogs like Damian Jackson on the roster, but Robinson's inexplicable penchant for playing his light-hitting favorites (and often batting them 2nd) was killing the team. For example, why does Frank Favorite Marlon Byrd (BA: .227) have more at-bats than Ryan Church (better OBP and only slightly worse slugging than Soriano)?

Posted by: Miles | September 28, 2006 10:21 AM

While Frank has forgotten more about baseball than I'll ever hope to know it's apparent the game has passed him by as a manager. His manage by his gut feelings have ruined good pitching arms and left liabilities on the field and at the plate.

I also recognize Frank is a baseball icon who has spend more than half a centry in the game. He should be afforded some class and dignity by the Nats to leave the bench gracefully. How Frank leaves the bench however, is ultimately up to him.

Posted by: Keith | September 28, 2006 10:35 AM

It's time to move Frank along to his old position at MLB. Some sort of ambassador for the game itself.

He's a legend of the game, but it's time to move on. Hopefully, the Lerner's can do it with some class, not like Tom Landry's exit from the Cowboys.

Posted by: Kim | September 28, 2006 10:45 AM

Fine, fine, he's not great. But PLEASE make it nice (and please, Frank, take it nicely). I am one of those people who appreciate that he managed the organization while going through hell (and on it's way back?) -- thanks entirely to the greed of MLB owners. I will never forget how MLB handled the Expos/Nationals, and I will never forget how Robinson stuck it out with us. His should be the first Nationals' name to go on that silly looking green tarp in the outfield.

Posted by: OD | September 28, 2006 11:00 AM

Thanks, Fish!

...and, by the way, Pena would get my vote for new manager. I watched him play in St. Louis as a kid and think he's a stand-up fella. Could be a good fit w/ Bowden and Kasten. He just never got the support he needed in KC.

Posted by: Greg | September 28, 2006 11:02 AM

It's too bad we won't have a chance for a Frank vs. Ozzie Guillen showdown, but Frank makes too many odd "I had a feeling" moves to justify staying as Nats manager. He might work as the proverbial "we needed a no-nonsense guy" manager that's replaced by the dynamic guy later (aka the Marty Schottheimer model).

BTW, JUST SAY NO TO DUSTY BAKER.

Posted by: tallbear | September 28, 2006 11:24 AM

You're really going to blame Frank Robinson for the Nats' season? There's Soriano (who coincidentally forgot how to hit) and Zimmerman who can play, but the rest of the team lacks talent. You can't coach losers to win, not in this division. This is typical DC sports commentary, where fans expect a mediocre team to win. Personnel moves are the problem, not the coaching. Give Robinson the Phillies, Mets, or even Marlins roster, and he would've taken them to the playoffs. Give Gibbs the Eagles, Giants, or Dallas roster, and he'd go to the playoffs. Believe me, it's not the coach here!

Look, I'm from Philly and moved to DC a few years back. I've seen decades of bad coaches, as well as lots of good ones with bad personnel (think Terry Francona as a prime example). Larry Bowa was a bad coach. Rich Kotite was a bad coach. Frank Robinson just has no talent to work with, kinda like Joe Gibbs.

Rambling, so if you skipped past this, don't blame Frank, its the players :)

Posted by: Anonymous | September 28, 2006 11:48 AM

Marc, do you know *anything* about baseball at all? With respect to the Nats, all you've *ever* done is complain about RFK and Comcast. With all your griping about the concessions, it's a wonder you get any time to watch the game and conclude Frank's an awful manager.

Now, I really do think the Nats can do better with a different manager. But it's worth noting that he did get through to Guillen when nobody else did, and he's got the team playing its rear off when they were mathematically eliminated weeks ago, and practically eliminated in May. And his cumulative record doesn't show the vast array of stiffs he's had to manage over the years. (Was Joe Torre a terrible manager until he stumbled upon the NYY job and now he's a genius because he's managing the Cooperstown All-Stars?)

Anyway, sure, he needs to go, but he's done a hell of a job producing respectability out of a redheaded stepchild of the game, and he really deserves a ton of credit for it.

Posted by: Section 406 | September 28, 2006 11:55 AM

Well, I for one am sorry to see Frank go. I'be been a fan of his since I was a kid and we used to reenact his slide home under a leaping Manny Sanguillen in Game 6 of the '71 Series. It didn't occur to me until I was an adult the importance of white kids in a small Maryland town arguing about who got the be the Hispanic player and who got to be the African American player. To us they were just ball players. That aside, I think Frank is getting the short end of the stick here. Yes, you can argue his statistics as a manager, but as Boswell pointed out much better than Fisher, numbers don't tell the whole story. Most recently Frank came out from behind his desk job to take over the MLB-owned Expos, the red-headed stepchild of sports. He kept that team respectable while playing half the games in Puerto Rico. And in the Nats first year while still being mismanaged by MLB he managed to make them respectable. The Lerners may not owe Frank anything and it's understandable they want to change direction but MLB owes Frank bigtime. I think my feelings were best said by a t-shirt I saw a someone wearing at RFK, it simply said "Frank Robinson IS the Man".

Posted by: JDT | September 28, 2006 11:58 AM

I will be sad to see Frank go. He did have some limitations as a manager - he is known for buring out pitchers - but he was also good in the sense that he didn't always stick to the formulaic match up garbage that so many mangers do these days. He had a certain way of letting guys be heros or not - which in my mind is good leadership. I will not buy any tickets for next year unless he is treated with absolute respect and honor - which he has earned.

Posted by: KM | September 28, 2006 12:51 PM

Excellent discussion, Marc. Spot-on analysis.

Posted by: Tom T. | September 28, 2006 1:05 PM

I'm sad to see Frank go, but the Nats are the Lerners/Kasten's toy now and they have the right to improve it how they see fit.

BUT, I agree with Boz in one of his columns last week: Lerners and Stan, keep Frank on in some capacity and pay him to make up for the years he was severely underpaid as a manager. He helped keep the Nats together through the dark days of MLB ownership, dwindling crowds in Montreal and "home" games in Puerto Rico, and he can be a bridge to the brighter future that's possible for the team in DC.

Let Frank Robinson become a teacher to the players and ambassador for baseball, and an asset for DC in general. He would be useful in bridging many gaps to help DC become better acquainted with the Nats, and it would be a fitting capstone for his career and tribute to him as a player, manager, innovator and baseball legend.

Posted by: dirrtysw | September 28, 2006 1:06 PM

For all the "find Frank a position somewhere" people, he's said he doesn't want a figurehead position. I'm guessing he's still bitter at being passed over as the O's GM.

He can't be Team President (Kasten) or GM (Bowden). I'm not sure he wants to be the scouting director or something similar. So there may not be a place for him.

Posted by: tallbear | September 28, 2006 1:16 PM

If the organization hasn't already told Frank that's he's no longer wanted, he would have read it in the Washington Post. What a way to find something like this out!

Posted by: Hmmm | September 28, 2006 2:40 PM

Fenty needs to hire him.

The man knows how to speak his mind. He can
connect with the residents of DC-a lot better role model then Marion B.

Posted by: hmmmm a thought | September 28, 2006 3:17 PM

"Marc, do you know *anything* about baseball at all? With respect to the Nats, all you've *ever* done is complain about RFK and Comcast. With all your griping about the concessions, it's a wonder you get any time to watch the game and conclude Frank's an awful manager."

No kidding! You've got 7 innings to stuff your face - do you really need to go back in the 8th for that 7th beer or 4th dog? Watch the game and root on the team for at least the last few innings (if you're not deep in your food coma by then)

Posted by: grumpy | September 28, 2006 3:33 PM

I will echo the thoughts of a few others. Frank has had complete dreck to turn into teams. His best year was the '89 Orioles. He was .537 and won the AL Manager of the Year award. Check www.baseball-reference.com. The leading batter on that team hit .287. He had the same record with the '82 Giants. Best hitter on that team was 38 year old Joe Morgan. He hit all of .289. The '90 O's had a leading hitter (Steve Finley) with a WHOPPING .256 batting average. Give the guy a break. He's the guy they call in when the owners don't care anymore.

Posted by: Huh? | September 28, 2006 3:58 PM

Please, please Frank--take this well and let us give you a standing ovation or four between now & the end of the season. I hope my kid grows up to be as much as a man as you are.

Having said that, I think we'd do better with a different manager. Frank develops inexplicable dislike for some players (case in point--Ryan Church) & some of his managerial moves don't make much sense. Also, trying to win every game is admirable, but sometimes you need to remember (1) it's a 162-game season and (2) Jon Rauch's arm may fall off.

Posted by: Section 418 | September 28, 2006 4:55 PM

Marc, thanks for proving to everyone how stupid I've known you to be for quite some time. "He's not a good manager and never has been." Frank was AL manager of the year when he led the O's to an 87-75 record the year after they went 54-107 (under, in part Cal Ripken, Sr. -- I suppose he didn't know baseball either). "He's a difficult and sometimes nasty guy." That makes a bad manager? Because that could fit some guys named Weaver, Durocher and McGraw, and they're all in the HOF (that's Hall of Fame, Marc). Frank's team have included an awful Indians team, the aforementioned O's, a SF team that he had in the race right to the end in 1982, and the MLB-owned Expos. He took a team that was a last place consensus team in 05 and had them contending for five months. What, he forgot how to manage one year later?

I could go on and on -- your ignorance is at Joe Morgan levels (see www.firejoemorgan.com). Suffice it to say that his successor will not have even Frank's resume, which you so eagerly disparage. Tony Pena? You must LIKE 100 loss seasons. Oh, and why is it that they kept (white) Jim Bowden and fire (black) HOF Frank Robinson? Hate to bring up race, but when your ownership is the whitest of the bidders, and you keep a proven mediocrity like Bowden, the mind strains for an explanation.

Posted by: Reuben | September 28, 2006 5:10 PM

Hey grumpy, some of us actually do WATCH the game in the early innings, and then maybe want to grab a quick snack late in the game if the outcome is clear by then. It's also really annoying when you're really thirsty and can't find a bottle of water or soda after the 7th.

Posted by: Cosmo | September 28, 2006 5:53 PM

Tony Pena would be an intriguing choice. So would former Yankee Chris Chambliss (remember his HR to win the '76 AL pennant?), whose minor league teams have won a few titles and deserves a big-league shot. Or how about former Houston pitcher and manager (also newspaper columnist and author) Larry Dierker?

I'm not the most avid fan of Robinson's managerial style, but based on his 50 years' contribution to the game, he deserves to go out the right way. This will be a test of the Lerners' public relations skills.

Posted by: Vincent | September 28, 2006 6:05 PM

Reuben, I like Frank Robinson at least as much as you do, but you're talking about a resume that consists of a career losing record, no first-place finishes and no playoffs. Go back and read Boswell's column from last Saturday. If you don't think the Nats can find someone with better qualifications or more long-term potential, that's pretty ignorant on your part.

Posted by: Cosmo | September 28, 2006 6:09 PM

The Lerners are NOT off to a good start. Of course, they have the right to choose a manager and define the direction for the team. But they rehired that clown Bowden and their share of the footdragging on the stadium has been far less than honorable.

Posted by: Chris | September 29, 2006 9:29 AM

Oh COME ON! Joe Torre woudl nothave a winning record if he had the teams Frnak has had and anyone can have winning seasons when they manage the Yankees!

Posted by: Joe | September 29, 2006 11:24 AM

He went 83-79 twice with the Expos under MLB ownership, and won 81 games last year with this team. The year he was Mgr of the Year, he took a 54 win O's team to 87 wins. His predecessor as O's mgr was Cal Ripken Sr., a pretty good baseball guy. He had his 82 SF Giants team in contention until the final weekend. Indians won 74 games before he got there -- two years later under Frank Robinson they were over .500. (This, from a team so bad they used them to base a movie about a perennial loser.) In Frank's last season in SF, they were 66-96. The near they were 62-100.

Let's look hard at that SF stint: the Giants were an aging team, they had Joe Morgan playing out the string, and he was one of their best players. They almost won their division under Frank. Three years later, they are losing 100 games under someone else. So doesn't that tell you that Frank got the most out of an aging team?

The Giants got worse after they fired Frank. The Indians were worse the next year. The O's got drastically better in '92, but Frank only managed them for 37 games in '91, and they were bad all year, going 67-95 (13-24 under Frank, 54-71 under Oates). So -- if Frank is such a bad manager, why is it that most of his teams improved after he got there and declined after he left there?

The fact is Joe Torre couldn't have done better with this team than Frank. You think fans avoided RFK this season, wait until it's August and we have the East Coast version of the KC Royals (after going so many years with Clippers East in basketball). You cannot replace Frank with Lou Pinella, because Lou's been there/done that with TB. Joe Girardi can have the Cubs job if he wants it (and Joe, they'll buy you another house). Everyone in MLB knows this team's farm system is shot (thanks, Jeff Lurie!) and the pitching is hosed (thanks, Jim Bowden!). You're looking at O's Redux, where players and managers will treat the "big bucks" we're supposedly going to spend like Syd Thrift "confederate money".

Stan Kasten led the Braves to a string of dividion titles and a WS win. He also was responsible for the Atlanta Hawks. Methinks the latter is the likely future for the local nine . . .

Posted by: Reuben | September 29, 2006 11:24 AM

Oh, and if we had a REAL GM, players like Matt Kemp, Ryan Shealy and Carlos Quentin would be leading the Nats to a surprising over .500 season in 07. They're top prospects in other systems who could have been had before they started to shine after being called up in 06. But they were never in the Reds system so Jim Bowden hasn't heard of them . . . damn, this team's in going to turn into the O's South. Or Royals East, take yer cherce.

Posted by: Reuben | September 29, 2006 11:31 AM

Oh, and as for reading Boswell's column: Tom Boswell is a great human being, and a fine writer, but he cannot tell me a thing about Frank Robinson I don't already know. If he relied a little more on personal observation and recollection, and a little less on first-level stats, his column would have been more infromative. Frank Robinson as a manager has been like Joe DiMaggio playing in Yankee Stadium: just like DiMaggio's power numbers were depressed by playing in a park that absolutely did not favor right-hand batters, Frank's percentage of winning teams is SIGNIFICATLY (not modestly, as Tom wrote) depressed by the fact that he managed the teams synonymous with ineptitude before (and after, but not during) he got there.

Posted by: Reuben | September 29, 2006 11:44 AM

Marc:

Just to be fair. Let's take a quick inventory of what Frank has had to work with over the last 5 years.

1.) Letting then Expos owner Jeffrey Loria do an ownership switcheroo to get himself out from under Montreal.

2.) A wholesale selloff of any stars on the major league level, gutting the minor league rosters.

3.) Playing most of the 2003/4 season either in front of a few hundred in Montreal/San Juan. Sheesh!, they could have drawn more playing on top of a coal mine in West Virginia

4.) Oh, and let's not forget MLB dragging their feet over last season... effectively tying our hands to signing/keeping any big names. Result: a pitching staff that, for the most part, would struggle to make the AAA roster of 2/3 of other MLB teams.

Keep in mind that Uncle Bud and the 29 other wisemen were controlling the pursestrings all this time. In yours and my world, we would call this little arrangement Enron. In MLB, it's called business as usual.

What I like best about Frank is what is missing from almost every other MLB manager. Accountability. He expects 100% 100% of the time.

Posted by: rg01957 | September 29, 2006 4:54 PM

The best review of Frank, by far, that I have found is at:

http://www.federalbaseball.com/story/2006/10/1/20594/4641

Perspective. It's amazing when you find it in a piece. Of course, no one comes HERE looking for perspective from Marc.

Posted by: Reuben | October 4, 2006 8:54 AM

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