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A visit from a National treasure

Sweating, ever-stoic, now 70 years old, Frank Robinson took a tour around Fenway Park at 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon.

He first came here in 1961 as a member of the National League All-Star team, and in 1966 -- his Triple Crown/MVP season with the Orioles -- he hit the first of his 49 homers on Opening Day at Fenway. Now manager of the Washington Nationals, and something of an American baseball monument, Robinson said he couldn't remember the last time he was here.

Watching games on television in recent years, he noticed some of Fenway's changes and had heard about all the money the new owners poured into the park, so he walked around to see for himself five hours before his team played the Red Sox last night.

``What'd they spend all the money on?" he said sarcastically as he clacked down the damp, dank tunnel that connects the visitors' clubhouse with the dugout. It's a creaky runway with standing water and chipped paint -- something you'd see in a tenement building on ``NYPD Blue." ``I guess they spent all that money on the home team clubhouse. This looks the same as it looked 40 years ago."

Robinson is enjoying his late-life status as ambassador for the Washington baseball franchise. This is his fifth year managing the Expos/Nationals, and every stop on the tour is another chance to teach the gospel of baseball.

The two questions he's asked most:

``Why do you still do this and how much longer are you going to keep doing this?


``1. Because I still love the game; and 2. maybe another 3 1/2 or four months, depending on what the owners want to do."

The Nationals were all the rage last spring when they burst from the blocks leading the NL East as late as July 20 as major league baseball returned to Washington for the first time in 34 years. After winning two straight against the Yankees at home over the weekend, they came to Boston seven games under .500. Their manager is their most famous player.

Frank Robinson is quite possibly the most underrated player in the history of baseball. Certainly he got his props, making the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and being part of 12 All-Star teams. He remains the only man to win the MVP award in both leagues and had his No. 20 uniform jersey retired by both the Reds and Orioles. He was Rookie of the Year with the Reds in 1956 and in 1975 became the first African-American to manage in the majors. Ever-dramatic, Robinson homered in his first game as player-manager of the Indians.

But there are no awards or statistics for competitive fire. Anyone who saw Robinson perform knows that he played the game harder than any position player of his time. He was the everyday Bob Gibson, a guy who would crowd the plate, dare you to hit him, then run you over on the basepaths. He despised chit-chat with the opposition. He had no use for frauds or anyone who would tarnish the game.

That's why it's so hard for him to stand back and watch juiced-up jocks wipe out some of his records. He bites his tongue while watching ballplayers stand around the cage with members of the other team during batting practice -- like high school heroes reuniting before a slo-pitch softball tournament. He watches baserunners avoid catchers who blatantly block the plate even when they do not yet have the baseball. He watches guys take a step toward the mound when they get hit in the shoulder by an 0-and-2 curveball. He's an old-school guy in a new-school game and he's learned not to let it eat him alive.

Let's talk home runs: Frank hit 586 and for the longest time ranked fourth, trailing only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays. But in recent years he has been passed by Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa -- two guys we suspect have been helped by illegal performance-enhancers. He's seen Rafael Palmeiro, who was caught cheating, close within 17 homers of him.

``No comment," he said sharply when the subject was first raised. Then he added, ``If a player is proven to have used performance-enhancers, I think you should wipe their records off the book. All of 'em. Wipe 'em all out."

Any resentment seeing Bonds and Sosa shoot past him?

``I don't resent that. I've got more important things to worry about. Life. Good health. What am I going to do?"

Sure, Frank. But what if we got you and Aaron and Mays into a room and got you drunk -- what would you guys say then?

``You wouldn't have to get us drunk," he said.

``You can't prove some of these guys are cheating," he added. ``It's a broad brush and until someone can prove it, those records stand. But like I said, if it's proven, then you wipe them out."

Fine. But what about the absurdity of Frank Robinson not making baseball's 30-man All-Century team in 2000? Mark McGwire was on that team. Pete Rose was on that team. Ken Griffey Jr. was on that team. No room for Frank -- a guy who could hit, run, field, and throw? The MVP in both leagues? Pete Rose over Frank Robinson? Please.

``That hurt," said Robinson. ``More than the other stuff. I was very upset about it."

He got upset again last month when he had to take an overmatched catcher out of a game in mid-inning. Matt LeCroy plays the game the way Robinson thinks it should be played, but LeCroy isn't good at throwing out baserunners. When the Houston Astros discovered this flaw (seven steals, two throwing errors) in Frank's third-string catcher, the proud old manager had to lift his catcher in mid-inning. That hurt. Frank's eyes got a little misty when he talked about it after the game and the newspaper accounts said he cried.

``I didn't cry," said Frank. ``My eyes got watery and I showed some emotion. Too many people are afraid to show emotion. I'm not. I really felt for Matthew because that's not something I like to see. I try not to put players in a position where they fail. I know it was embarrassing, but I had to do something in that situation."

He did what he had to do. The right thing. The things he learned when he was growing up, playing basketball with a teammate named Bill Russell at McClymonds High School in Oakland.

``Yeah, I scored more than him," said Frank. ``It didn't take much. He was a defensive specialist. We just had good instructors. They taught you values and fundamentals."

Which is what he does now. After a half-century in major league baseball.

``I still love the game," he said. ``I try to bring something to the game and make it better."

Take a long look at him tonight and tomorrow night, Red Sox fans. Frank Robinson. Old school. Big talent. Fifty years of baseball history, still competing in the third base dugout of old Fenway Park.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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