In the 3 1/2 years since being fired by the Cleveland Indians (he was major league baseball's first black pilot), Frank Robinson has been preparing himself for the time when he would be asked to manage at the level again. That time came last week when Frank signed a two-year contract to help rebuild the struggling San Francisco Giants.
What undoubtedly contributed greatly to the Giants' selection of Robinson was the learning process he deliberately put himself through since his Cleveland exit in June of 1977. His 186-189 won-loss record over approximately 2 1/2 seasons with a mediocre ball club wasn't that bad.
Strategy was not his undoing. but his impatience with situations that he should have known would take time to solve; an early attempt at umpire baiting over too many little things; and the fact that he had arguments where reporters could see them may have been.
Now the chances are that Robinson, the only man ever to win a Most Valuable Player award in both the National and american Leagues, won't make those same mistakes again.
Three weeks after Frank was released by the Indians, he was hired as a coach by Manager Dave Garcia of the California Angels. the following year he managed in the Baltimore Orioles farm system and for the past two seasons has been the Orioles' first-base and batting coach under Manager Earl Weaver.
Robinson was not the only candidate under consideration for the San Francisco post by owner Bob Lurie. also in the running for the vacancy left by Dave Bristol's firing were former major league managers Dick Howser, bob Lemon, Del Crandall, and Gene Mauch, although the Giants may have been more interested in Mauch than he was in them.
"Frank Robinson was a smart ballplayer who still knows how to win and how to communicate, which is so important in running a big league operation today," Lurie said. "While we don't expect anyone to come in and turn our organization around overnight on the field, we do think Frank will be able to show us some progress right away."
One of the problems with the giants is that they seemed to acquire a false sense of security about their overall team worth in 1978 when they won 89 games, finished third in the National League West, and drew more than 1.7 million fans. But after two consecutive fourth-place finishes, the newfound popularity in the Bay Area of the Oakland A's, and a huge drop in attendance, Lurie decided it was time to make some major changes.
When Robinson managed the Indians, there were frequent charges that he had trouble getting along with his black players, and there were specific problems with Larvell Blanks and Rico Carty. But Frank also had a well-documented run-in with John Ellis, who is white.
"Every manager has problems with players and I wasn't any different," Robinson once told reporters. "I didn't even mind people writing about this; what I minded was that they made it seem like my only problems were with black players. Anyway, the people I did have problems with just didn't want to hear what I had to say."
Frank does not feel that a manager has to have an all-star or even a near all-star at every position to win a pennant.
"I think you win when you have good offensive and defensive balance, plus a lot of pitching," robinson explained. "And when I say pitching, I also include the bullpen. Relief pitching wasn't that important when I broke in as a player, but today nobody wins consistently without it.
"What I'm after is a team that will make the routine plays in the field all the time," he continued. "I don't care about the spectacular play because it isn't going to help you that much.
"What kills a manager is when one of his infielders boots an easy double-play ball or one of his hitters can't sacrifice the tying run from first to second base with the team's power coming up. The point is, if you can't get that kind of execution regularly, you can forget about pennants."
When asked to evaluate the Giants' current personnel, which went 75-86 in 1980 and finished 16 1/2 games behind the Houston Astros in the NL West, Robinson replied:
"I only saw San Francisco briefly last year on television and I don't think it would be fair to draw any conclusions on that basis. My first thought is that I will talk individually with all my players before spring training and that by the end of the exhibition season I probably will have a pretty good idea of what this team can do.
"Personally I think any team can be competitive by playing hard, aggressive, heads-up baseball. I think the Baltimore organization has proved that by what they have done with pitching and defense. Basically those things will keep you in every game, but until I've had the chance to learn about my players, all I can tell you is that we will be aggressive."