Robinson ready for 50th season

Robinson ready for his 50th year in baseball

VIERA, Fla. -- It was near the end of Spring Training of 1956. The Reds were taking batting practice in Chattanooga, Tenn., when general manager Gabe Paul, sitting in the stands, called over a 20-year-old rookie outfielder.

Frank Robinson went into the stands, and Paul told him that he made the Opening Day roster. Most rookies would have jumped for joy after hearing such news, but not Robinson.

"I didn't get overjoyed about it in those days," Robinson said. "I just said, 'Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate it.'"

For the past 50 years, people have been overjoyed with Robinson on and off the baseball diamond. During his first 21 years in baseball, Robinson put together a Hall of Fame career, hitting .294 with 586 home runs and 1,812 RBIs with five different teams -- the Reds, Orioles, Dodgers, Angels and Indians.

Robinson is the last right-handed hitter to win the Triple Crown and the only person to win the Most Valuable Player Award in both leagues.

Since his playing days ended, Robinson was the vice president of on-field operations for Major League Baseball and helped put together the Arizona Fall League.

During his playing career, Robinson made it known that he wanted to remain in the game as a manager. And his wish came true in 1975, when the Indians hired him as the first African-American to manage a big-league team.

Robinson, 70, has managed in the Majors for 16 years. During those years, he has considered himself "a good mechanic." Four teams -- the Indians, Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals -- have asked Robinson to turn them into winners.

All four teams improved under Robinson, with the Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals finding themselves in pennant races.

"That's a lot of years to live in this game," Robinson said of his 50 years in baseball. "To be in the game this long, you have to be very fortunate. A lot of people has been involved in this game and very few have spent that much time in the game. I feel very lucky, and I appreciate the opportunities that I've had and still have. I don't take anything for granted."

Robinson has seen a lot of changes in baseball during his 50 years in the game. The biggest change has come during Spring Training. When he started playing in 1956, players went to camp to get in shape, because they had jobs during the winter time and they played a lot more games during the exhibition season.

Today, most baseball players are already in shape thanks to sophisticated training programs, and their Spring Training last six weeks.

"Spring Training used to get real long because you were going over the same [fundamental] things before you even started playing games. You were very happy when the season started," Robinson said. "But things are better -- the playing fields, the complexes. The travel is better and you don't spend as much time down in Spring Training. You now play teams that are not too far away from your city. It's all for the best."

This Spring Training, Robinson has to familiarize himself with a new coaching staff and roster, which general manager Jim Bowden overhauled this offseason. Gone are outfielder Brad Wilkerson, Robinson's ace in the hole, Jamey Carroll, one of his favorite players, and Tom McCraw, his longtime hitting coach. But despite not having those people, Robinson is making sure the Nationals stay competitive despite having a limited budget.

"The landscape has been tough in [the National League East] every year that I've been here," said Robinson, who started managing the organization since 2002. "You look at the Braves every year, the Marlins, the Phillies ... the Mets have gone up a notch or two.

"We all start out even. Things happened in sports. We have a chance as anyone else. It's up to us what we do during the course of the season."

It is unlikely that Robinson will spend much more time in baseball, but while he has his health, Robinson would like to one day be part owner of a Major League team.

"I would like to make decisions that shape the future of a ballclub," he said.

Would he like to be part owner of the Nationals?

"If the opportunity came along, yes," he said. "That would be an ideal situation. I'm not looking at anybody's job, but if I was asked, it would certainly be a good situation."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.