Courageous Frank Robinson was one of the toughest players who ever lived

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

There are those who, when they go, take a little bit of all they touched with them.

They’re the ones with the biggest spirits. The ones who don’t ever seem afraid, or unsure, who aren’t unwilling to get in front of the good stuff or the messy stuff, because somebody has to, may as well be them.

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They’re the ones who are tough and are kind. The ones who laugh and, if they have to, cry, because when you get down to it that’s why we’re here, before we go.

And, then, they are the ones who are exceptional.

So, along with Frank Robinson, you may also say goodbye to a piece of the best part of the game, and then to a piece of what the game was before men such as Frank Robinson were asked to play it, to manage it, to love it, to trust it. Assuming, of course, it can yet be trusted.

Frank Robinson died Thursday. He was 83. He’d begun his professional baseball career at 17, an outfielder. He’d ended it at 71, a manager. In between, he was all that was right about how the game would be played and represented and thought of. He was powerful and fast. He was firm and thoughtful. He was unafraid. He laughed and cried, because that’s why he was here.

Frank Robinson started his professional baseball career at 17, an outfielder. He’d ended it at 71, a manager. (Getty Images)
Frank Robinson started his professional baseball career at 17, an outfielder. He’d ended it at 71, a manager. (Getty Images)

And so when that was done the baseball world mourned Frank Robinson, the player who arrived a handful of years after Jackie and was a Hall of Famer, twice an MVP, a Triple Crown hitter and a Gold Glove fielder, and then honored the manager who broke the color line with the Cleveland Indians, guided three other franchises and retired with nearly 1,100 wins. Beyond that, Tony Clark, head of the players’ union, noted Robinson’s “dignity.” Major League umpires lauded his “grace.” Major League Baseball, for which Robinson worked as an executive, advisor and ambassador, called him, “Our friend.” Players and former players, and managers and former managers, waved and said their goodbyes, perhaps pausing to consider the same, that the accomplished among us go and it summons a sudden and cool draft.

You reach for a moment. A deed. A view into the person. The bigger spirit.

It was almost 13 years ago now, an afternoon at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. Frank Robinson managed the Washington Nationals. They weren’t very good. For one thing, most of their catchers were hurt. It meant Matt LeCroy, on bad knees and who knows what else, would have to catch that day against the Houston Astros. LeCroy would not have seemed to be the most or the least of the Nationals’ potential issues that day, given the Nationals had gone out 18-29 and appeared to be played precisely to their potential.

The Astros stole seven bases that day. They stole 72 in their other 161 games. And in the seventh inning, with none out and two Astros on base and a rare Nationals lead in peril, Frank Robinson chose to relieve his catcher. LeCroy came off. Robert Fick took his place. The Nationals held on and won.

To catch sight of a man’s soul is rare. Of two men’s souls, rarer still.

Afterward, overtaken by the gravity of a decision that may have humiliated a fellow ballplayer, Frank Robinson wept.

Then Matt LeCroy absolved him, saying, memorably, “If my daddy was managing this team, I’m sure he would have done the same thing.”

Hard-guy Frank Robinson was one of the toughest players who ever lived. (Getty Images)
Hard-guy Frank Robinson was one of the toughest players who ever lived. (Getty Images)

Frank Robinson hit 586 home runs, was an All-Star 14 times, and what comes today is not those, but the depth of his feelings that afternoon for an aging catcher just passing through. Frank Robinson stood above all but a few who ever played the game, and eye to eye — heart to heart — with a guy fighting for a few more at-bats. And LeCroy, a favorite on every roster he ever played on, who today manages with distinction in the Nationals’ minor-league system, chose to spare Robinson, the man who’d dragged him from the field on his worst day.

Hard-guy Frank Robinson, one of the toughest players who ever lived, on some days nothing more than a grouch, on plenty the most noble man on the field, and every day emblematic of the decent path baseball had finally chosen for itself, revealed something of his soul that afternoon. There was the game, the idea of the game and how it was supposed to treat those who honored it. Like Frank did. Like Matt did. Everything else followed.

That’s the guy who’s gone today, who’ll thread out one of those stitches on one of those baseballs and take that with him. He was that courageous. That sure. That willing to get out in front of it all, no matter how it looked at the end. After all, if not him, then who?

Good thing it was him. That’s why he was here.

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