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Matt LeCroy was on the phone from South Carolina, apologizing for not calling sooner, explaining about the five kids and coaching basketball and spring training starting, all with a chuckle about how fast an offseason can go by. He’d been at the doctor’s office a few days back when he’d received news his old manager was dead, so he’d been carrying that around with him too.
“A good man,” he said. “Maybe kinda salty. But he was who he was. Just a sad time. The guy was a good man.”
LeCroy’s been a manager himself for most of the past decade, trying to turn minor leaguers into big leaguers, to turn mounds of talent and wisps of direction into something more presentable, more complete. They all come through Harrisburg, Double-A for the Washington Nationals, and maybe they know it and maybe they don’t, but they generally leave with a little Frank Robinson too.
LeCroy played a half-season for the Nationals, in 2006, Robinson’s final season in D.C. LeCroy was in the lineup that day in May when Robinson removed his struggling catcher mid-inning, regarded in baseball culture as near heartless. Robinson had acted to save the catcher from his own failing body, at least as much as he had acted to save the team from a loss, and the right decision still tore at him when the game was over. Matt LeCroy was that catcher, and hated that it had to be done, and came to love the man who’d done it.
“What’s crazy about the whole thing, when I signed with Washington, in spring training I didn’t know anybody,” he was saying about that season with the Nationals and Robinson. “I didn’t play much in spring and I went to Frank and said, ‘Just wanna know if I can get some more at-bats.’ And he said, ‘You’re gonna have to get used to this, because you’re not gonna get a lot of at-bats.’”
And, well, that was pretty much that, straight out, because while Frank Robinson was committed to delivering what he promised, he was not big on promising what he would not — or could not — deliver.
Nearing the end of his career and making the best of it, LeCroy nodded and moved on to whatever would come of the Nationals and Frank Robinson and him. Six games into the season, LeCroy, to his surprise, pulled a start against the Houston Astros and Andy Pettitte. Alfonso Soriano led off with a double in the second inning. Up next, LeCroy spent four pitches trying to do nothing more than move Soriano to third base. On the fifth, he grounded to shortstop. Soriano stayed put.
Robinson met LeCroy in the dugout and said, “I appreciate it.”
Three words that stick with LeCroy still, that he finds he uses more often as a result.
“He was so happy,” LeCroy recalled. “He recognized that, even though I didn’t get the job done.”
And, then, when it was time for LeCroy to go mid-summer, Robinson called him to the ballpark early, to explain he would be released, that he recognized LeCroy had drawn about all he could out of what he had left. Robinson thanked him for that too, because that’s about all a guy can ask of another. They talked for 90 minutes, some of it happy, some of it not, and Robinson encouraged LeCroy to consider coaching. They shook hands.
“He came across as hard, but he cared about us,” he said. “During the season, it was weird, he opened up to me a lot. He didn’t do that a lot. When all that happened, when he took me out, people didn’t understand the true story. He didn’t want to play me because I was hurt. That day he said he needed me and I wasn’t going to turn it down. I wasn’t going to turn him down.
“He wanted to win a game. But he cared about the person first. So me and him had a unique relationship. When I think of Frank I think of that. I think of him taking Soriano out for not running a fly ball out. Soriano was our superstar. But Frank treated everyone the same, whether you were making $15 million or $200,000. He didn’t care.”
So, yes, Frank Robinson, big old bad Frank Robinson, cried the day he had to go get Matt LeCroy, to walk him back to the dugout, because ballplayers know when it’s done or nearly done, and they know how much it hurts. The hope is the end isn’t so painful, that when someone comes for the uniform it’s done with dignity, with sympathy. Frank Robinson came with empathy.
“Frank was a superstar,” LeCroy said. “He’d been in that box a lot and went through a lot. And he still cared about you.
“He didn’t miss nothing. And he cared about me when he really didn’t have to. Yeah, gonna miss him.”
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