By PETER KERASOTIS
VIERA, Fla. - The walls are bare except for a conspicuous framed poster that hangs not far from Frank Robinson's gaze.
"That's not there by accident," Robinson said softly, looking up at it.
The poster shows Jackie Robinson, resplendent in his Montreal Royals uniform. The Royals were a minor league team in the Brooklyn Dodgers' organization in 1946, when the photo was taken. Montreal is really where the color barrier first fell, and the significance of that is not lost on Frank Robinson, who now manages the Montreal Expos.
The two men share the same surname. They also share a significant page in American history.
Jackie Robinson was baseball's first black player.
Frank Robinson was baseball's first black manager.
For Jackie Robinson, the journey began in Montreal. And now, for Frank Robinson, the journey ends in the same place.
"I'm very aware of the significance," Frank Robinson said. "It's a special coincidence, kind of weird, but in a special way. I'm managing in the city where he broke in. My last stop as a manager is where he started as a player. Yeah, I do think about it."
Frank Robinson never really got to know Jackie Robinson. At least, not well. Their playing careers overlapped by two years, but Frank Robinson says he was "too young and too shy" to really take advantage of the opportunity to get to know the hero who paved the way for men like himself, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and other blacks who changed the face of the game - literally and figuratively - in the '50s and '60s.
"I was around him," Frank Robinson said. "I sat down and talked with him a couple of times. But I wouldn't say I really got to know him."
Had Jackie Robinson lived, he'd be 84 today. But not only did he not live a long and full life - he was 53 when he died in 1972 - he didn't live long enough to see Frank Robinson become baseball's first black manager three years later, in 1975.
That historical day, when he was hired to manage the Cleveland Indians, Frank Robinson spoke about Jackie Robinson at the news conference.
"If I had one regret," he said, "it was that Jackie Robinson wasn't alive when I was named manager. I wish he could've seen that."
It is 28 years since Frank Robinson became baseball's first black manager, since that second barrier fell, and the obvious question is this: If Jackie Robinson were alive today, how would he view the state of minorities in baseball?
The hint of a grimace crept into the wrinkles of Frank Robinson's face. He is 67 now, and much more diplomatic than he was in his younger years. But a man has to speak out about things that stir his passions.
"I think he'd see that it's made improvements," he said. "It's a lot better than it used to be. But it still has a long way to go."
He talked about the dearth of blacks in front office positions, as presidents and general managers.
"We've only had three Afro-American general managers in the history of the game," he said. "That's sad. We seem to get jobs as assistant general managers, but we don't seem to get to the next level. Why is that? Why is Bob Watson not a general manager today? Here's a guy who helped build the Yankees, hired Joe Torre as manager, and won in New York. Why isn't his name mentioned whenever a GM position is open?
"Where is Cito Gaston? That man won two world championships in Toronto. Two! Yet, every year when there are managing jobs open, you never hear Cito Gaston's name mentioned. Why not?"
The question hung in the air like a bad odor.
Even though Frank Robinson has managed four different teams - Cleveland, San Francisco, Baltimore and Montreal - one could argue he's never really had a chance -to succeed, that is.
Everywhere he's managed, Robinson improved the product. But he's never had a chance to manage in any one place for very long.
In Cleveland, he took over a losing franchise in 1975 and led the Indians to their first winning record in eight years in 1976. The following season, after a slow start, he was fired.
He won National League Manager of the Year honors in 1982 with the Giants, but two seasons later, he was fired.
At Baltimore in 1989, he guided the Orioles to a 32 1/2-game improvement over the previous year, winning American League Manager of the Year honors, making him the only player in baseball history to win the MVP and Manager of the Year awards in both leagues. Two seasons later, he was fired.
Robinson is working his leadership magic again, this time on the young Expos. Many picked them to be among baseball's worst last year. Instead, the Expos finished 83-79, and contended for much of the season.
"I think minorities have proven that, as far as managing goes, we can win," Robinson said. "Cito Gaston. Dusty Baker. Felipe Alou. We've proven we can do the job just as well as anyone else. But it seems that the only jobs we ever get are teams that have to be fixed. It would be good if they gave us time to both build and reap the benefits. But we don't get that time."
He is not on a soapbox when he says this. In fact, his voice is low, almost as if he's tired of the topic. A lifetime of knocking on the same doors, asking the same questions, over and over, can wear a man out.
"But it has to be talked about," Robinson said. "It has to be written about. When we get to the point where an Afro-American can be named to manage a ballclub, or be a GM or president, and no big deal is made of it, then we'll have arrived. We're not there yet."
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