Monday, June 26, 2006

Defending Montreal

Last week, in an interview with, Frank Robinson took a shot at Montreal and its fans. It's no secret that you were not popular in Montreal, but, in Washington, the fans seem to understand what you are going through with this team. You seem to get a loud ovation every time your name is mentioned.

Robinson: It's a whole different thing. I did nothing [as a player] in Montreal, and the Montreal fans are not baseball savvy like the people in the D.C./Baltimore area. I also followed Felipe Alou, and the Montreal fans were all into Felipe Alou. They thought he was God because he did a tremendous job.
Apparently, and probably understandably, this caused a bit of an uproar in Montreal. A commenter in the thread where I originally pointed out the interview chipped in:
The Frank Robinson interview touched off a firestorm in Montreal. Elliot Price and Shaun Starr really laid into him during the local sports radio station's morning show. Frank's reputation there was not high to begin with, and now he has probably moved himself into the ranks of Montreal baseball fans' most hated, along with the likes of the Commissioner of Baseball and Jeffrey Loria.
Elliot Price, it should be noted, was the team's play-by-play announcer while they were in Montreal.

When I read Frank's comments, I thought they were stupid, but decided to focus on other things. Well, today, Bill Ladson wrote a mailbag and took a question from an angry Montrealer. Here's the exchange:
I take offense to Frank Robinson's recent comments in an interview conducted by you. Regarding his lack of popularity in Montreal compared to Washington, he stated, "The Montreal fans are not baseball savvy like the people in the D.C./Baltimore area." The reason he was unpopular in Montreal was not because we are not baseball savvy.

Everyone was aware of his accomplishments through his Hall of Fame career. The reason he was unpopular was because of his poor choices as manager. Continuously putting the likes of Jim Brower, Hector Almonte and Rocky Biddle in key game situations is an example. Edwards Guzman getting 150 at-bats is another. His love for Ron Calloway and Henry Mateo are further examples.
-- Jeffrey S., Montreal

I'm baffled by his unpopularity in Montreal. I don't think anyone could have done a better job. Robinson, Omar Minaya and Tony Tavares should get a standing ovation for what they did over there with no money.
And I think what Robinson said to me was legitimate because look how the fans and the media responded when he took Vladimir Guerrero out of his last game in Montreal in 2003. All Robinson was doing was making sure that Guerrero received a curtain call, which is done all around baseball. But what did Robinson get for it? Nothing but boos and criticism, which was wrong.

As far as the players Robinson used in Montreal, what other choices did he have? Unlike in Washington, Robinson didn't have choices. The Minor League system was depleted and the Expos couldn't make deals on a regular basis to improve the club.
Frank's comments, when combined with Ladson's (who was covering the team for MLB's news service), make this seem like an ego-fueled personality conflict. It seems that Frank was upset with the criticism he got, and made it personal. The people of Montreal didn't look at Frank as Frank Robinson, HALL OF FAMER ™, instead, choosing to evaluate him strictly as a manager. Frank, and, yes, I'm projecting here, but I think it's a reasonable projection, felt disrespected, and Tomo Ohka can tell you what happens when Frank feels disrespected.

In his answer to the original query, Frank continued on, talking about his experience here in DC, which cements this belief in my mind:
In the D.C./Baltimore area, I think it's the people who understand what I did in Baltimore as a player and what I've gone on to do. They saw me manage in Baltimore and the turnaround we had in 1989. And I think they are saying, "We appreciate what you did then and what you are doing now." A lot of the young people are saying, "My father told me about you and now we are seeing you in person." That's nice when people recognize me for that. That's the real difference.
Frank has every right to be proud of his playing career, and what he did for the Orioles. But that doesn't make him immune from criticism, as much as he sometimes seems to think he is. That's probably why he inveted that "manage by the gut" meaningless stock answer. It cuts off all debate. Who are you to question Frank? He's managing by his gut, which has been in 4,000 more Major League games than you have.

Jeffrey's question of Ladson notes that there's a distinction between what he did as a player and what he did as a manager. And he rightly points to several strategic decisions that, if you change the name, could be plucked from his tenure in DC. Take out Jim Brower and plug in Joey Eischen. Take out Edwards Guzman and insert Cristian Guzman. Frank has and continues to make curious roster decisions. His in-game strategy is brow-furrowing. And he's shown an inability to handle the personalities of a pitching staff.

Ladson, in his response, rightly points to Robinson's success while in Montreal. It's certainly true that they exceeded expectations, winning 83 games in back-to-back seasons when everything was stacked against him. But the 95 losses in 2004 count, too. Things definitely were stacked against him -- the travel schedule, the roster, the resources MLB gave the team (scouting tools, equipment, etc). And that they did that well is definitely a point in his favor.

But you watched Frank in action last year. While in some respects 81 wins was remarkable, don't you think that it's possible that, if things had been managed differently, a game or two here or there could've been swung in our favor? The Expos fan brought up crappy players being penciled in the lineup the same way that we got angry when Vinny Castilla kept getting penciled in the lineup despite Rick Short and Ryan Zimmerman hitting the crap out of the ball in the minors. Or, what would've happened had Frank shown any patience with Darrell Rasner or John Halama in August and September instead of riding the big 3 hard? Who knows. But it's not an unreasonable question, just as the Montreal fan's questions are legitimate -- questions that can't be brushed away with a 'manage by my gut' answer.

When Ladson says that he's 'baffled' by Robinson's unpopularity, he's not looking at these questions, not evaluating Frank in terms of his on-field decisions. He's likely looking at Frank Robinson, HALL OF FAMER ™, and evaluating Frank's results on the macro level. There's certainly merit in that, but the opposite viewpoint shouldn't be baffling to anyone. Frank's more curious moves have to have the beat writers shaking their head from time to time. That's all that Montreal fan is saying.

But, although I've rambled a bit, Frank's charge that Montreal fans lack "baseball savvy" is complete and utter horseshit. That they didn't respect Frank seems like it's the real issue.

But, a Montreal fan could probably make an argument that Frank didn't respect them. Frank became the butt of SportsCenter jokes for weeks when he was caught napping in the dugout (something he did earlier this year). Another time, he was caught making personal calls on his cellphone while the game was going on. After an argument with Tony Armas, Frank 'resigned' only to change his mind the next day. You can understand how a Montreal fan could feel that Frank was just cashing the check between tee times. And coming after Felipe Alou (a point that Frank raises), that was a particularly greivous crime.

Over the last 15 years, Montreal fans have been through enough. While I'm thrilled that we have a team, I still feel for the Montreal fans. They take a lot of crap, especially for the attendance problem in the later years, but they've been hamstrung with incompetent ownership for years. Why would the fans invest time and energy in a team that's constantly telling them that they're going to be contracted, or sold, or moved? Why put time into something that's just going away? When the team was doing well, the fans came out. No, they weren't going to draw 40K a night, but they could do well enough to be near the top of the bottom third. Sure, the media contracts weren't there at the end -- in part because of that crappy ownership situation -- but with a strong, dedicated owner, it could've worked. But that's a different debate.

They are just as savvy about baseball as the fans of any team, and to insinuate that they're not is garbage, and reeks of pettiness. Frank should be above that.


  • Great post, Chris.

    Especially since it must have been blogged from a wi-fi equipped dinghy or somesuch.

    By Blogger Sam, at 6/26/2006 11:42 PM  

  • During his tenure in Montreal, Fank Robinson was a victim. There is nothing he could have done that would have erased from the fans mind the fact that he represented Bud Zelig, the man they blame (and rightly so), for the demise of the club and its upcoming departure.

    The use of Robinson's stature and position in baseball history as tool to legitimize the events that surrounded the Loria and MLB ownership fiascos was dishonest to Montreal, its fans, but most of all to Robinson himself.

    In the end though, he only has to blame himself for letting Zelig take advantage of him the way he did.

    Denis - MTL

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/27/2006 9:19 AM  

  • Excellent post. People often forget that Frank was brought out of a cushy office as an MLB VP and asked to be a caretaker manager in Montreal. The league wanted one of its own guys to shepherd the franchise through what was supposed to be the contraction process.

    While Montreal fans have the right to feel disrespected by Frank, they should think about what he was asked to do, which was literally go through the motions of a manager while Bud nailed down the contraction. If you were the manager of a business that was about to close, how hard would you work? Just hard enough to tread water.

    Only after contraction came off the table did Frank start to see any kind of long-term potential in his job, but it seems as though some of the bad habits have remained. It's time for Frank to take a graceful exit.

    By Blogger Brandon, at 6/27/2006 10:30 AM  

  • I honestly wouldn't have thought that up in Montreal they were still following the goings-on of their old team this closely, but obviously the reaction set off by Frank's comments indicates otherwise. Some people up there clearly are still watching everything with an eagle eye.

    I'm going to put on my psychologist's hat here and say that I think the "firestorm" doesn't really have as much to do with Frank Robinson and his comments as much as it has to do with the lingering sensitivity and bitterness over losing the team. Some of the other comments here help to reinforce my opinion.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/27/2006 1:14 PM  

  • Omar Minaya did a GREAT job huh Bill:

    From Mid-Season Blockbusters June Part Three: The Hardball Times

    June 27, 2002: The Montreal Expos traded first baseman Lee Stevens, outfielder Grady Sizemore, pitcher Cliff Lee, and second baseman Brandon Phillips to the Cleveland Indians for pitchers Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew.

    Oh, dear.

    A lame attempt on MLB's part to convince baseball fandom that even though they'd taken over the Montreal franchise with the obvious intent of killing it or moving it, hey, they were serious about making this team a contender! That's right! We're good guys here!

    Or perhaps Expos' GM Omar Minaya really thought this was the right thing for him to do to improve the team. If so, that's even more lame. Colon was a terrific pitcher, but let's remember: the Expos were 41-36 at the time of this deal, 6.5 games behind the perennial juggernaut Braves; the Expos had allowed 8 more runs than they'd scored, while the Braves had outscored their opponents by 76 runs. Was Colon really going to make up that magnitude of difference?

    He didn't; the Expos finished the year 19 games behind. Meanwhile Sizemore and Lee would take root and blossom in Cleveland. This, combined with Minaya's subsequent dumping off of Colon in exchange for the immortal Rocky Biddle, constitutes episode number 43 in the slow, steady, systematic, and sickening evisceration of the Montreal franchise. I wish the Nationals well, but major league baseball has earned nothing but shame in this story.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/27/2006 4:30 PM  

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