The gait was perhaps a bit slower, the gray hair perhaps a bit thinner, the No. 20 Nationals jersey perhaps a bit more snug. But there was something both familiar and comforting when Frank Robinson walked to the mound this afternoon before a sellout crowd at Nationals Park, invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the franchise's first-ever home playoff game.
Today's game was first and foremost a celebration of the 2012 Nationals and their NL East title. But it was also a celebration of how the organization reached this point, and surely an appropriate opportunity to recognize this team's first manager.
"It was delightful, quite an honor," Robinson said later during a visit. I enjoyed doing it. And I thanked the Lerner family for asking me to do it."
Though he had made a couple of unofficial visits to Nationals Park over the last five seasons, Robinson had never formally returned or appeared on the field in front of fans, the result of lingering resentment over his firing at the end of the 2006 season by former general manager Jim Bowden and former team president Stan Kasten.
Members of the current Lerner family ownership group have maintained a cordial relationship with Robinson, though, and chose this event to invite him back.
The 77-year-old Hall of Famer broke out his old jersey number and was greeted with a rousing ovation from the crowd when he stepped to the mound and then threw a floating strike to shortstop Ian Desmond, who this spring changed his uniform number from 6 to 20 in part to honor Robinson.
"He's worn it well," Robinson said.
After relocating with the MLB-owned franchise from Montreal after the 2004 season, Robinson guided the inaugural Nationals to an 81-81 record and a mid-season playoff run that faded down the stretch. They didn't reach the .500 mark again until this season, drawing more fans than they had since that 2005 campaign at RFK Stadium.
Robinson isn't surprised in the least by the local support for a winning ballclub.
"It was an exciting time when we came here, and the two years we spent here, especially the first half of the first year, it was great," he said. "It was exciting. And it was good for the fans, because there were people that were saying that baseball wouldn't go here with the Orioles just down the way. And I told them they were wrong from the beginning. When we were in Montreal and thinking about coming here, I said these are great baseball fans here. Put a good product out there and they'll come out and root for the team. It's great. It's great to see this. It's well-deserved."
The Nationals will dip into the D.C. baseball history well again tomorrow afternoon. Former Senators slugger Frank Howard is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 4.