Frank Robinson sets a standard for all Orioles, past and present
The baseball world lost a legend last week, a man who left an indelible stamp on the sport, a great portion of which came with the Baltimore Orioles. We’re talking, of course, of Frank Robinson, a 21-year-big leaguer, two-time MVP and Hall of Famer who died on Thursday at the age of 83.
I’m not going to spend too much time delving into Robinson’s credentials – he was clearly an all-time great. Robinson is 24th all-time in WAR, wedged in between Nap Lajoie and Mike Schmidt. His 586 home runs rank 10th all-time (he was fourth before the steroid era) and he hit .294 despite not being higher than .266 in his last five seasons.
But his influence goes far beyond his accomplishments as a player. Making his debut as a 20-year-old in 1956 for the Cincinnati Reds, Robinson took the legacy of Jackie Robinson (no relation) and pushed it forward to the next level. Both Robinsons were fiery competitors, but where Jackie was forced to quietly endure the abuse he suffered as MLB’s first African-American player, Frank refused to do so.
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He was a man of indomitable will, intense focus and supreme confidence both in his abilities as a player and in his destiny as a man. If you didn’t like it, that didn’t mean anything to him. He was going to attack life and accomplish his goals on his own terms, and nobody was going to stop him.
That drive took him to great heights as a player, and later he broke a barrier himself as Major League Baseball’s first African-American manager.
And that intensity and purpose never left him. He wanted to be the best at everything he did, and he didn’t understand why anybody would settle for anything less than the top of their profession, no matter what profession that might be.
This brings me to a story from several years ago. It’s not my story, but was relayed to me by a close friend. My friend’s wife is an excellent golfer. And I don’t mean she’s excellent in a way that she might compete well in your weekly foursome. I mean that she would dominate your group every time – and would enjoy doing so.
She played four years at a top university and was among the nation’s top amateurs coming out of college. But instead of becoming a touring pro and joining the LPGA, she opted for a more steady life as a club pro, working at clubs, giving lessons, running tournaments – those sorts of things.
One day, she was working at her club in Seattle and Robinson came into the pro shop. I don’t remember why he was in Seattle, but apparently a friend had brought him to the club to play a round. They struck up a conversation, and Robinson, hearing her story, was puzzled.
“Why are you here?” he wanted to know. “Why aren’t you touring?”
She explained her desire to be closer to family, to be home with her husband, etc. But Robinson couldn’t comprehend it. He couldn’t understand why she, with her ability, wouldn’t be out competing against the world’s best golfers. So there he was, talking to someone he had just met, and he’s more or less berating her for not, in his mind, challenging herself. What do you say to that?
I never met Frank Robinson, but I don’t think anyone who knew him would be surprised by this story. That’s not just how he viewed baseball, it’s how he viewed life. That’s what made him not only one of the greatest players off all time, but one of the sport’s most important figures.
His sheer willpower and take-no-prisoners attitude could be a benefit or a detriment. Dennis Eckersley says he never stopped being afraid of Robinson and he’s probably not alone among opponents. But Robinson’s curt, no-nonsense nature could hurt him when it came to courting support from upper-management. Nevertheless, Robinson’s players respected him for his teaching not only the details of the game, but the proper way to play it.
As Thomas Boswell writes:
“He believed in players who, objectively, did not merit it. So they believed in themselves. Some, such as Steve Finley, panned out as stars. Others, such as Curt Schilling — who tried out purple hair, looked like Billy Idol and when called in from the bullpen once said, “So, who’s up?” — weren’t Frank’s guys.
They crashed walls, stole bases and threw strikes. But most of all, they loved the endless details of the game, studied them, revered them as Robinson did and believing that demanding unfailing fundamentals from each other would win.”
Robinson was a good fit for the infamous 1988 Orioles for these very reasons. They were awful, as we know, starting the season 0-21 before finishing 54-107. They started believing in themselves as the season progressed, and shocked everyone with an 87-75 record the next season, finishing just two games out in the AL East.
I’d like to think that Robinson would have been a good fit for the 2019 Orioles as well. This team is going to be bad. It’s too young. It lacks talent. And many of the players on the current roster have to know they are not part of the franchise’s long-term plan.
Robinson wouldn’t have made this team great, and he might have groused about sabermetrics and other trends currently dominating the sport. But he would have put a culture in place. He would have taught these guys how to play. He would have believed in players who, objectively, do not merit it. He would have taught them how to believe in themselves and how to ignore the critics, to push all the noise aside and throw the entirety of their focus into becoming better baseball players.
Trey Mancini might have said it best in a tweet: “The baseball world lost a legend today. If you don’t know much about Frank Robinson, I recommend looking him up. He is what every player and person should strive to be!”
That’s exactly right.
Very few players have the talent to be as good as Frank Robinson — certainly nobody on the current roster will reach those heights. But everyone has it in them to work as hard as he did in an effort to reach their athletic peak.
That’s the model Robinson can set for the Orioles both in 2019 and beyond.
Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!