By Jeff Berlinicke
Homegrown talent is a term not often heard around the Camden Yards warehouse. With a poor reputation for developing players on their own, the Orioles seem to finally be making progress in growing their own talent. Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Nick Markakis come to mind, but it is Brian Roberts who is leading the Orioles into the next generation, trying to follow in the footsteps of Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray, homegrown talents that taught what used to be known as the "Orioles Way" before mismanagement led things the wrong way.
In 24 games without Roberts, the O's hit .208 out of the leadoff spot.
Roberts missed the end of the 2005 season with a dislocated left elbow, torn tendon, and torn ulnar collateral suffered in September after a collision with the Yankees' Bubba Crosby while trying to cover first base. After undergoing surgery 10 days later, Roberts showed up for spring training in Fort Lauderdale this spring eager to duplicate his 2005 season in which he hit .314 with 18 homers and 73 RBIs. He also made his first All-Star team and doubled in the midsummer classic. Things were looking up as Roberts and the Orioles started a new campaign with a new manager and a new attitude, a team looking to get past the debacle of the second half of 2005.
Although the surgically-repaired elbow held up fine, it wasn't long before things went wrong for Roberts. A strained groin sidelined him during the April series against the Seattle Mariners and Roberts went back to the disabled list. Roberts, who played regularly in college and throughout his minor league days, was growing frustrated after the new stint on the DL coincided with a team slump.
"It will be a relief when it's over," Roberts said once he began his return to the Orioles on May 25. "I just hope I feel good. I am tired of sitting and watching this. It is no fun. You can't kill yourself the first couple of days, but I just want to play the way I always do.''
Roberts' reckless style of play often has fans on the edges of their seats. It's this enthusiasm for the game that made Roberts feel like he couldn't stay away.
"If your team is struggling, you feel like you have to be out there to help your team,'' Roberts said. "I missed being on the field and being a part of the game.''
Roberts has been a part of the game since he was a baby. His father, Mike Roberts, took the head-coaching job at North Carolina in 1978 when Brian was an infant. The Tar Heels finished third in the College World Series of that year but the following summer, Brian contracted pneumonia, which produced a heart defect that required open-heart surgery when he was only five years old.
"I don't remember a lot about it," Roberts said during spring training. "I remember being wheeled out of the operating room and how hard it was for my parents. They were crying, but I didn't really know what was happening. It was a difficult thing for my parents.''
Roberts continued to watch his father's success at North Carolina while developing a great game of his own. After learning from Tar Heel and future teammate B.J. Surhoff, Roberts made it into the Tar Heels record books himself, named College Freshman of the Year in 1997, and ACC Player of the Year in 1998.
After his father was let go after the 1998 season, Roberts transferred to South Carolina where he led the nation in steals in 1999. He was taken by the Orioles as the seventh selection in the 1999 major league draft, No. 50 overall. He raced through the organization and reached Baltimore in 2001 for a peek at the bigs. He did the same in 2002 and, after a brief stint at Triple-A Ottawa in 2003, Roberts became an Oriole for good.
Roberts credits his father with teaching him how to conduct himself both on the field and off it.
"He was my dad and he was my coach, 100 percent all the way," Roberts said. "It was difficult at times, and everyone who has had a father-coach relationship can tell you that. It's hard, but finally I told my dad to just enjoy my career."
He had a great example to work with. When Roberts made his major league debut, he had to look only a few yards to his right to see Cal Ripken who also made his way into baseball under the tutelage of his father.
As the Orioles slipped further into the depths of the American League East and the Orioles' managerial staff remained ever-changing, Roberts saw it was time to take a leadership role on his own. He told his father, who now coaches in the Cape Cod League, that it was time to move on. After a long talk, Roberts continued following the examples of others, but kept a close ear to what his father still had to say.
He collected the wisdom and used it wisely. In 2004, after winning the starting job at second base from Jerry Hairston, Jr., Roberts hit .273 with 4 homers and 53 RBI. Of his 175 hits, 50 were doubles, an Orioles record and the most by a switch-hitter in American League history. Without the pressure of an uncertain role, Roberts relaxed but never lost his intensity.
Unfortunately, after his breakthrough 2005 season looked complete, the Orioles collapsed in the second half and Roberts' season ended with the late September injury.
Perlozzo said he doesn't expect anything less from Roberts, no matter where the Orioles are in the standings.
"He gets better every day," Perlozzo said. "He's a spark in this lineup and we need him to play the way he plays. That's the way he is and it's what makes him a great player."
Roberts has also created a reputation throughout the American League.
"He's their sparkplug," said Tampa Bay Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon. "He knows how to get on base and he makes it tough."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia agreed.
"He gives us trouble," Scioscia said. "He gets on base and gets their whole lineup started. We need to get him out because that team has a lot of hitters after him."
The Orioles can only hope that Roberts starts a new tradition, with his attitude on and off the field. It's been a long time since the Orioles have had that inspiration that can lift a team out of the doldrums.
Roberts is one of Baltimore's own, never anything but an Oriole. The fans at Camden Yards can only hope he stays that way.
Issue 1.7: June 8, 2006