The first-place Washington Nationals got me thinking. There is no rational statistical reason that this team should be in first place in June, even though it's only a half-game lead. There's no one star, there's no stat that jumps out as an explanation for this team's success. And it's not like they've been blowing out teams. Twenty-one of the Nats' 31 wins have been of the come-from-behind variety. There's got to be something else that can explain it. He's not the only reason, of course, but I believe Frank Robinson deserves some credit for cultivating a winning attitude on this team.
Driving back from the grocery store this evening, I tuned in to Sportstalk 980. Surprise, surprise, they were talking about the Nationals! That surprise aside, they were talking to the Capitol Punisher, Frank "Hondo" Howard. Hondo is a joy to listen to on any subject, but something about Frank Robinson struck me as particularly true.
Paraphrasing from memory, Howard said "It's said that a ballclub is a reflection of the manager's personality, and often that's true." He complimented the current Nats squad for their no-nonsense, fundamentally sound approach to the game.
Hondo recounted how Frank Robinson was one of the top competitors he ever played against. Again, I'm paraphrasing from memory, but Hondo's quote was something like this: "You play against Frank Robinson, you'd better have your shoelaces tied, because he's going to try to blow your socks off."
I'm one of the first to criticize some of Frankie's managerial moves. Here's
the best example of me ripping on Frankie for his decisions. And many, if not most or all, of the Nats bloggers are on Frankie even harder than I am.
However, I really believe that F-Rob is a special presence in the clubhouse. I'm not saying that we're not rightly befuddled by Frankie sometimes. But the man comes to work wanting to win. But at the same time, he understands that a team can't win every day and keeping a confident attitude is important.
The 2004 Expos were a relatively young team that was put through hell. They were stripped down by MLB and forced to spend over 100 games on the road.
As Hondo attested on the radio tonight, Frankie is a no-nonsense competitor. I wasn't in the 2004 Expos clubhouse, of course, but I have to imagine that Frankie helped tune out the distractions for that team. The manager never deserves all the credit, and usually not even a majority of the credit -- but the effect of a competitive personality like Frankie upon a clubhouse can't be underestimated.
Flash-forward to 2005. The Ex-Expos are in Washington, D.C., a new situation, a new city, a new name. In its benevolence, Major League Baseball gives the Expos/Nats permission to trade and pursue a few free agents. Jose Guillen, Vinny Castilla, Esteban Loaiza and yes, Cristian Guzman are added to the mix. Suddenly, the orphans of MLB have more firepower and veteran leadership.
I really believe the relationship between Frank Robinson and Jose Guillen is emblematic of this team. Saturday night, Guillen was hit in the hand by a pitch. He was scratched for Sunday's game, but made it very clear to Frankie that he was available to play. From today's Washington Times
"[In the seventh inning, o]ut of the dugout came Guillen, who wasn't supposed to play after getting hit on his right hand the night before but convinced Robinson he could come off the bench if needed. The Nationals' emotional leader drilled a single to right off reliever Jim Mecir, loading the bases and keeping the rally alive.
"'I looked at his hand today, and I said he can't play,' Robinson said. 'But he said, "I'll be available if you need me." He's done that all year, and I sure respect him for that.'"
This team wants to win, and Guillen is emblematic of that. I believe that Frankie sees some of his old competitive fire in Guillen, and Guillen really respects him in return. I keep flashing back to Guillen and Frankie shadowboxing in the dugout in Los Angeles. Guillen was playful like a little puppy, and Frankie was holding his hands up in self-defense like the old grandpa he is. Thursday, as Gary Bennett's game-winning soared into the outfield, Guillen tugged on Frankie's sleeve excitedly, like a little kid saying "We're gonna win, we're gonna win, we're gonna win!" Guillen loves playing the game, and Frankie is having the time of his life as well.
Frank Robinson isn't going to take any crap from players either. Some think Frankie overreacted in assesing Tomo Ohka a fine for turning his back on him Saturday night when he came to remove him from the game. I can entertain that argument to a degree. I'm sure Ohka was pissed, he wants to do well just as much as anyone.
But the other half of me says "so what?!" I firmly believe "tough love" is a good thing. The goal of the team is to win
. Nothing more. The team doesn't exist to make Ohka feel good. Now, I like Tomo, and the coaches need to work with him to help him get better. But to give the manager attitude on the mound is unacceptable. Frankie won't tolerate that from anyone, and I'm grateful we have that kind of manager.
Add the Ohka incident to Marlon Byrd's "run-in" with umpire Joe Brinkman, and there's plenty of reasons the team could be distracted. Before Sunday's huge win, however, the team held a closed-door meeting, not to deal with Ohka and Byrd, but to address "the sloppy, unprofessional play that had begun to surface in recent days." (Wash Times
And then the Nats went out there and executed. It wasn't pretty, but they delivered in clutch situations. This only bodes well for the team down the stretch.
The Nats are confident now. Frankie in Washington Post
"'It really builds resilience so when you do get in the ballgames later in the year with the pressure, you should handle it,' Robinson said. 'This is good for our run, it really is.'"
"Patches" Church added to that sentiment in the Times
"'Maybe it's our comfort zone,' Church said of Washington's 21st come-from-behind victory this year. 'We know going late into the game, we can come back. We've been there. We've done that. We just have confidence.'"
Baseball is a tough game; you win some, you lose some. Even the best teams go through hard times.
These guys know how to approach the game, though. Today's Times
"'I'm in the clubhouse with these guys,' Robinson said. 'The way they conduct themselves, the way they talk, the way they deal with tough losses and the way they carry themselves the next day, it gives you a feeling about this ballclub that good things are going to happen, to them and for them.'"
The Nats know how to play baseball and play it the right way, especially over a long grueling season. Their heads are screwed on right. The Nats' attitude is a major key to their success. Confounding though he might be sometimes, our manager deserves a lot of credit for cultivating that positive yet cocky attitude.