Publish date:

He's an irregular regular

Bill Robinson is off to a fast start, but he still has no position to call his own

No matter where he is playing—be it Cincinnati or New York or Los Angeles—he is sure to hear it. "Weaser," someone will call to him from the stands. "Hey, Weaser." And Bill Robinson of the Pirates will know someone from his hometown of Elizabeth, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh, is on hand. Why was he given the name? Robinson doesn't know. What does Weaser mean? That's also a mystery. The nickname is downright befuddling, which makes it especially appropriate for Robinson, a .300 hitter with power and a good glove who, confoundingly enough, cannot get a regular job.

Last season Robinson hit .303 and 21 home runs in 122 games. He was the Lumber Company's leading right-handed slugger and most valuable player. He performed at five different positions and pinch-hit .455. All of which earned him his 1977 niche as a substitute. "I am the No. 1 utility man in baseball," he says joylessly.

But in the Panglossian world of Pittsburgh's new manager, Chuck Tanner, Robinson occupies the best of all possible positions. "People call him a super-sub," says Tanner. "I call him a super-regular. He's more valuable than most regulars, because he can play so many positions."

"It's true we led Bill to believe he'd be starting at third this season," says General Manager Pete Peterson, "but we couldn't resist picking up Phil Garner from the A's. He plays third, and Willie Stargell plays first. We want to stick with Al Oliver in left and Dave Parker in right, and we feel Omar Moreno in center gives us the kind of outfield defense we haven't had since Roberto Clemente. Not that Bill isn't good defensively. He is, and he's our top sub at all five positions. He may not get 400 at bats, but he'll get plenty with his versatility."

And with the ever-burgeoning Pirate injury list, Robinson was a disgruntled bench warmer for the first four innings of the season. Because Oliver was sidelined when the pain from a mouth ulcer became too acute, Robinson moved into the outfield. Two games later Stargell began suffering, first from a strained right knee, then from dizzy spells, and Robinson has been at first base ever since. Through last weekend, he was hitting .348 and leading the Bucs with eight runs batted in. There was even talk in Pittsburgh that the Pirates will trade one of their regulars so that Robinson can have a spot to call his own in the lineup.

Robinson's prebatting ritual includes a quick Lord's Prayer while he crosses himself several times. Then he rubs his forehead from eyebrows to hairline with the middle and index fingers of his right hand, a relaxation technique he picked up from a kinesiologist. Finally Robinson assumes an upright stance made all the more menacing by his 6'3", 200-pound frame, and lashes downward at the ball with a whippy 33-ounce bat. "I try to make the top of the ball mine," he says. "I swing for grounders and line drives. After all, how often does a guy drop a fly? But the big thing is, I've learned to relax and meet the ball instead of trying to overpower it. I've eliminated the word 'pressure' from my vocabulary."

"His attitude has changed completely," says Del Unser of the Expos, a close friend and former teammate of Robinson's in Philadelphia. "He was very high-strung with the Yankees [1967-69] and at times with the Phillies [1972-74]. Now he can wait out a pitcher and hit breaking stuff. I think if he hadn't had to break in as a Yankee, he'd have been where he is now five years ago."

Robinson's New York debut was a tough one. He was just 23 and recovering from surgery on his throwing arm. Nonetheless, the New York press insisted on calling him a "black Mickey Mantle." Robinson increased the pressure on himself by homering in his second Yankee at bat. Forever pressing, he hit .196, .240 and .171 in three seasons. One day he broke every one of his bats on a dugout wall. Then, after dropping down to the minors for a couple of seasons, Robinson became a Phillie in 1972 and the next year hit .288 to win a starting position in the outfield. No sooner was he a regular than his bad luck returned. Robinson underwent off-season surgery for bone chips in his left elbow and found, to his utter disbelief, that he was not starting in 1974. A somewhat overblown dispute with Manager Danny Ozark hastened his trade to Pittsburgh.

"I saw the lineup card without my name on it and took a swipe at it, not meaning to touch it," Robinson recalls. "But it came off, and Ozark was watching. He called me into his office, which he had a perfect right to do, and we both let off a lot of steam. When I was leaving, I tried to close the door gently, but there was a breeze and it slammed." Now he can laugh about the incident.

Robinson was ripe for another blowup after the Garner trade this March. Instead, he calmly talked out his disappointment with two friends from his minor league days and his father, Bill Sr., a retired steelworker. "They all told me the same things," Robinson says, "that I still had a job and that things could be worse. So I didn't do anything rash, and I'm glad. We got a heck of a third baseman in the deal, and because I had thought I would start, I had gotten into the best shape of my life mentally and physically." Robinson still wishes he were a regular, of course, but he does not talk about it much.

Nearly 34, Robinson knows his big-league time is short, but though he has had off-season jobs as a management trainee, of late he has been almost too altruistic, spending much of his spare time raising funds for research on lupus, an often-fatal disease that attacks the connective tissues and can affect any part of the body from the skin to the heart. "There may be half a million Americans suffering from lupus," says Robinson, "but very little is known about it. Often doctors fail to diagnose it."

During the past year, Robinson has begun thinking of his future. "If I had a guarantee of security, I'd like to move back to Pittsburgh and get work in the winter," he says. "It's been tough on my wife and children, living in our home outside Philadelphia while I'm in a hotel room here. There would be nothing better than finishing up my career at home before my family and friends."

But if it doesn't work out that way, there's still consolation for Robinson. He learned long ago that Weaser-watchers will travel anywhere to see their favorite jobless player go to work.