By Craig Heist
Last season, Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts hit .314 with 18 home runs and 73 RBIs while slugging .515 on his way to being named the Orioles' Most Valuable Player. He was voted the American League All-Star starting second baseman.
It was Roberts' breakout year, so it's easy to understand why he saw his entire career flash before his eyes late last year in New York.
Roberts suffered a serious arm injury on September 20 after colliding with the Yankees' Bubba Crosby while covering first base after a bunt play.
|Photos by Sabina Moran/PressBox|
What he got was the worst, and he knew it. Besides dislocating his elbow, there was serious structural damage as well.
"When I looked down and my arm was pointing backwards, I pretty much knew something was not right," Roberts said. "I grabbed it, and it popped back in. I couldn't really feel my whole arm, so I knew something was pretty bad. The ligament tore, and all my forearm muscles tore off the bone, so there was really nothing holding it in place."
Orioles' manager Sam Perlozzo remembers that day as one filled with many emotions.
"I had a terrible sick feeling, and I was angry," Perlozzo said. "I wasn't angry at anybody. I was just angry that one of our best players got hurt again, and severely. It just made me angry. I felt so bad for him, because I knew how much pain he was in. It went from that to major concern for Brian and that he was going to be okay."
Roberts had surgery ten days later to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament and repair the tendon. After the surgery, the rehab process was slow.
"It was mentally and physically grueling," Roberts said. "Early on it was more frustration because there was really nothing I could do. For about six weeks I couldn't do much of anything insofar as moving it or anything. It was immobilized for the most part the whole way.
"Once I started the gradual rehab process, it started to pick up and then there were frustrating parts when it wasn't going as fast as you like. You are not sure how well you are going to come back, but I just tried to have faith that it would work out in the end."
Jay Gibbons, who has been through a few rehabs himself, worked out with Roberts during the offseason. Seeing what Roberts went through to get back to where he is today is something that still sticks with Gibbons.
"It's nothing short of amazing," Gibbons said. "The guy didn't lift a weight until, maybe mid-January. We're talking three-pound weights. I was definitely a little concerned because he's barely lifting any weight. I didn't think he was going to be ready and I told him, just take it easy, don't rush back, and here he is hitting .300 in August and hitting leadoff as our set-up guy. He's having a great year."
Heading into spring training, Roberts said he didn't know if he would be ready to go when the regular season started.
"I really hadn't picked up a bat and I hadn't done anything," he said. "The first day I went to hit off a tee it was like swinging a telephone pole and hitting a medicine ball. It was something I had never felt before. So, I didn't know what to expect. Realistically, I didn't know if it would be Opening Day or the All-Star break. I was very fortunate. I probably came back a little sooner than I should have, but it worked out."
Part of what made that early return possible was when Roberts made two diving stops at second base on hard-hit balls in spring training. Seeing Roberts make those plays gave Perlozzo confidence that his second baseman might be ready for the season.
"For the most part it did," Perlozzo said. "I still felt like we had some things to get through. We had some obstacles physically and mentally to get over. I was so proud of the kid for working so hard. I knew all winter he was going at it."
Roberts said there were many barriers to overcome once he was back on the field.
"There's the first at bat, the first dive, there is the first time you go and cover first base, all of those things," he said. "I still have those moments where it's like, wow, it freaks me out when I go cover first base on a bunt, those sorts of things, but for the most part, once you can overcome those barriers you tend to start rolling a little bit faster."
Through the Orioles' July 30 game against the White Sox, Roberts was his hitting .297 with two homers and 36 RBIs this season. The switch hitter is batting .338 from the left side while just .213 from the right. He has little doubt the injury is responsible for his struggles as a right-handed hitter.
"I mean, it's my lead arm and it's certainly not as strong as my other arm," Roberts said. "I was talking to [hitting coach] Terry Crowley the other day in the cage and he was saying, 'It will be next year, just keep battling.' That's all you can do. It's frustrating at times but you just have to keep battling and take it as it goes."
As for the mental hurdles, Roberts said they're a thing of the past.
"I don't get scared going on the field anymore, but I still constantly think about it," he said. "When I lay down to go to sleep, if I lay in the wrong position, I think about it. All these things I had to think about for four, five, six months, I still think about them but it's a lot better than it was in February that's for sure."
The only thing Roberts wants to do now is help the Orioles become a winning team.
"We all get tired of losing," Roberts said. "It gets old that you have to find the positives and you have to find where you are headed as a team and an organization. I think we are headed in the right direction but you can only say that for so long. You have to go out there and win eventually and hopefully that is coming sooner rather than later."
Issue 1.15: August 3, 2006