Thursday, October 20, 2005

Frank Robinson Gunned Down at Third:
When What Made You Great Makes You Hate  

Third Base in the MBB Model is self-awareness, part of which is coming to grips with the emotional settings we have but don't always know about consciously. They affect decisions sometimes in little ways (not taking seriously a job candidate who's wearing a tie that may have been fashionable two years ago but not now, presuming someone with a Southern accent is a Gomer, for example). Sometimes, it's in a big way. Sometimes a manager can incinerate his team's chances to make the playoffs because he can't control his emotional settings. Sometimes that manager is Frank Robinson.

Reader Doug Chapin pointed out to me and then documented how Frank Robinson, who managed this year's Washington Nationals (nee Montréal Expos) into wild card contention after years of adversity imploded his team's chances. Robinson has suffered in his managerial career from several small bigotries that have undermined his performance.

A little background: Robinson was one of the finest players ever to make the majors. He won a Rookie of the Year award (1956, for Cincinnati), a Gold Glove (1958, Cincinnati), Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues (Cincinnati in 1961, Baltimore in 1966). In 1966, he also became one of just 15 players in history to win the Triple Crown (led the league in batting average, homers and RBIs), and was MVP of the World Series too.

In short, he was an all-around player. He was born with great natural talents, and worked very hard to sharpen them. But until 2002, when he took over the Expos, he was a poor manager. Rico Carty, one of the better players on Robinson's 1975 and 1976 Cleveland teams, once told me that Robinson was really tough in his expectations of players. Robby was a five-tool all-star who found it hard to believe that if his players weren’t as good as he had been, they just weren’t trying hard enough. Robinson was one of the best 20 players in the history of the game. Using himself as the metre bar against which to measure skill was guaranteed to marinate Robinson in disappointment and his contributors in grief. Robbie was bigoted against the 99% of major league ballplayers who weren’t as good as he was. It’s a small bigotry in the big scheme, but one guaranteed to corrode both manager and staff.

This is typical among non-baseball managers who have a strong history of accomplishment. Their normal pattern is to see each fresh face as a savior, only to be disappointed when they discover the youngster can’t do everything they themselves can do. But organizational rosters, like most MLB rosters, will usually have a very few five-tool players mingled with role-players who excel at one or two of the many things they need to do. The Frank Robinson pattern may increase your ability to find the flaws in each player's game, but it brutally limits what you can and will do to help your organization help the player succeed within his limits and learn to exceed them.

It may have been age or special learning experiences or the just the fact that the Expos had such an eviscerated roster, but when Robinson inherited the Expos in in 2002, he was successful with them both in that year and the next. Were his expectations so low that he had to overcome his natural tendencies, or had he grown as a person and manager? I’d wanted to think it was the latter.

Thanks to a bizarre MLB ownership scheme intentionally designed to make the Expos dead meat and drive their fans to existential panic, the team was asphyxiated by an unrealistic budget, forced to travel on a maniacal schedule that incorporated two home parks 1,917 miles apart, in Canada and Puerto Rico, and had a really bad costumed mascot. Guaranteed to be awful, Robinson’s team collapsed in 2004, and in the off-season fled to Washington, D.C. With low expectations for 2005, the renamed Nationals started outperforming expectations, played steady ball, and owned the N.L. East’s best record (51-34) on July 7.

Then a different small bigotry showed itself. Frank Robinson hates pitchers. Or maybe he just acts that way. The very bigotry that made him a remarkable player (focusing lots of malicious analysis on those bustards who pitched to him) undermines him as a manager. After three bad outings, Claudio Vargas was waived. Waiving means you get nothing back, and Vargas was respectable enough to give Arizona, which picked him up, 100 adequate innings over the rest of the season.

Then Robinson feuded with Tomo Ohka, one of his better starters. That culminated in an incident where Robinson came out to the mound to remove Ohka and the pitcher committed gross public disrespect by turning his back on the manager as he approached. Management traded Ohka to Milwaukee on June 11, just a week Vargas's departure. The players became polarized by Robinson’s behavior. Some approved, some opposed, but the team was still performing. Then the team’s most promising young pitcher, Zach Day, was nailed for “insubordination.” Management banished him to Colorado (for pitchers, the equivalent of that creepy island in the TV show “Lost”).

And in early August the team waived pitcher “Sunny” Kim, again receiving nothing and again witnessing the banished pitcher putting decent numbers up for another team.

Okay, you think to yourself, the Nats had promising young starting arms in the farm system or got pitchers back in the transactions or picked up nice resources off other teams' waiver mistakes. None of the frelling above. As the penultimate skipper to lead a Chisox team to World Series Al Lopez knew, you never give up on a player until you know who you’re going to replace him with. Lopez knew that, you know it, but Robinson who knows it too chose to allow his bigotry against pitchers outweigh his respect of Lopez’ Law. Like a town after a Stalinist purge with no one left to teach school or make shoes or run the fire department, the roster didn’t have enough starters left. The Nats closed out the season with a 12-17 run that included Robinson kludging multiple relievers together as a stand-in for the fresh single starters he didn’t have on his roster because he had sent them all to the Pitcher Gulag.

Bigotry is a widespread reality. I know perfectly intelligent people who believe everyone on the planet is a bigot. It doesn’t matter here if they’re right or wrong — if you have bigotry about pitchers or ethnic groups or faiths or height or gender, just be aware of them and don’t allow yourself to act on them if they will undermine your pennant drive. And if you see it in other managers in your organization, point it out to them. The emotional setting you have may make you good. The way you use them to your advantage might make you great -- but a manager can't afford to let those gauze over his abilities to make the best use of his reources to achieve the organization's goals.

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