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Hall of Famer takes on new task

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 24, 2002

JUPITER -- He knows every player by at least one name.

Sometimes, it's only the first. Other times, the last.

"Some I can't even pronounce," Frank Robinson said last week. "But I can recognize them from their faces."

More than a month into his first spring training in nearly 11 years and first as manager of the Expos, it's evident the 66-year-old Hall of Famer is still feeling his way around his new job.

Foiled in their attempt to eliminate the Expos during the offseason, owners bought the franchise from Jeffrey Loria last month.

Though the future remains unclear beyond this season and likely includes either elimination or a move out of Montreal, where crowds at Olympic Stadium seemingly can be counted on fingers and toes, Robinson appears content.

"I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "It's a one-year thing, and that's all I could offer. I don't want to manage for any (certain) length of time. But this fit, and I want to be here."

Before Robinson could agree to move from behind a desk as MLB's vice president of on-field operations, where he was responsible for doling out fines and suspensions for on-field incidents, there were questions he needed answered.

"Did I want to do it?" Robinson said. "That was No.1."

Could he handle the physical and mental rigors of a 162-game season?

"No question about it," he said.

Did he really want to endure questions from players about why they weren't playing or why he pinch hit for them? What about rain-delayed games that drag on for hours? And the hotels?

"It's sort of a treadmill," Robinson said. "Going, going, going. From mid February to the end of September."

When every question was answered with a yes, he went to the commissioner and said the same.

A team that finished last in the National League East was his.

The Expos are a curious blend of talented youngsters with a few milestone-chasers added in for good measure.

It's possible Vladimir Guerrero will play alongside Jose Canseco in the outfield. And All-Star second baseman Jose Vidro will look to his left and see Andres Galarraga manning first base.

The 37-year-old Canseco, who will play leftfield, is 38 homers shy of 500. Galarraga, 40, needs 23 homers for 400 and wants to do it with the team he spent his first seven seasons with.

"It makes me happy and excited to come back with the team that gave me the opportunity to be a professional," Galarraga said. "We need to play hard and need to play the best we can, especially this year.

"Because we don't know what's going to happen with this team. The young guys have to play the best they can in case they have to play with somebody else next year."

Added former River Ridge High pitcher T.J. Tucker: "We've got a job, and we're going to play baseball this year. We'll do our best on the field. I think we have a team in here that can compete. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people this year."

If anybody had the credentials to manage a team, it's Robinson.

His 586 home runs in 21 seasons rank fourth all-time behind Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. He is the only player to win the Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues (Reds 1961, Orioles 1966).

He became baseball's first black manager when the Indians hired him in 1975 and is 680-751 in 11 seasons with Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore.

"I hope they're not intimidated," Robinson said. "I hope they feel like I'm approachable. I think I've made myself available to them where they would feel that they could come in and ask if they could go pick up their wife at the airport.

"I'd say sure, buddy, but don't drive fast. Drive slow."

He was hired only days before pitchers and catchers reported. Still, players have taken to Robinson's balanced approach.

"It was just short notice," Tucker said. "He just wants us to get our stuff done on the field. No fooling around. That's what he said the first day. We had a day off that Monday, meetings Sunday. And he told everybody not to show up at the field on the day off or they'd be fined.

"But we knew we had to pick it up after that."

Though he came from MLB and is paid by the owners, Robinson expects to be treated the same as any other manager.

He does, however, return to the game with a different perspective.

"I think every time you were managing and you're away and you come back, you have a different perspective because you've been able to sit back and look at things from a distance," he said.

"But I like the team here. I like the players. There are some good ones on this ballclub. And I felt like we were going to have a chance on a daily basis. That's all I could ask for."

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