Brian Roberts signing with the New York Yankees is one of those happenings that registers very little with the wider baseball world but carries a variety of intense meanings for Baltimore baseball lovers.
The interesting thing about Roberts is not the immediate impact of his departure on next year's team. He played 77 games in 2013, and that was the most he had managed since 2009. Roberts is 36 and plays one of the most physically punishing positions in the sport. The odds of him staying healthy for even one more full season seem low.
He was the Orioles' most productive second baseman last season, but that's a backhanded compliment if there ever was one.
No, I'm thinking more about Roberts' entire tenure in Baltimore and what it meant. The guy has put together an incredibly interesting career. He was arguably the face of the Orioles during the gloomiest stretch in franchise history. He intersected with two of the darkest clouds in sports -- performance-enhancing drugs and concussions. Nonetheless, his jersey remained one of the most popular at Camden Yards, he inspired rare affection from Orioles principal owner Peter Angelos, and he drew enormous respect from opposing players.
When I covered the team day-to-day in 2006 and 2007, it was common to see the opponent's best player approach Roberts for a chat during batting practice. I don't know that a casual fan would have guessed it, but in baseball's internal society, Roberts rubbed shoulders comfortably with the Derek Jeters and David Ortizes.
Roberts is the son of a college coach, and I haven’t seen too many players push harder to be good. Perhaps the outside world would give him credit for being an overachiever, given his diminutive stature and modest speed. But Roberts never seemed to see it that way. In fact, he seemed to put immense pressure on himself.
I always wondered if that led him to try steroids, something he admitted doing after his name appeared in the Mitchell Report in 2007. Roberts never faced the backlash that greeted some of the more famous steroid users. He benefited from playing in a gentle media market, but fans also seemed to empathize with him — this 5-foot-9 baseball lifer who so badly wanted to be good.
And, lest we forget, Roberts was a heck of a player for about six years. It was easy to miss how good he was, because he wasn’t the best at any one thing. But he played above-average defense, clocked 40-50 doubles a year, got on base enough to score 100 runs four times and became an excellent percentage base stealer.
His best season, 2005, was also the year he suffered a gruesome elbow dislocation in September. But he worked like a demon in the offseason, and there he was on Opening Day the next year, diving around with the same old abandon. He even became a notably durable player for a time, averaging 157 games from 2007-2009.
In early 2009, I interviewed Red Sox executive Bill James, father of the analytics movement that has swept baseball in recent decades. I asked him if there was an Oriole he particularly enjoyed watching. “Is there ever,” he replied. “Brian Roberts. There isn’t any player in the majors that I enjoy watching more. I think the reasons are obvious ... plays hard, no matter where the game is, does a lot of things well.”
At his peak, Roberts probably wasn’t the best second baseman in Orioles history (I’d vote for Bobby Grich), but he was on the short list. So it seemed reasonable when the Orioles signed him to a four-year, $40 million contract starting in 2010. Only in retrospect does that seem like the worst timing in the world.
From abdominal pains to hamstring strains to a hip that required surgery, Roberts’ body betrayed him repeatedly. Nothing struck so hard as the concussions. Roberts is a health nut who loves being outdoors, but for weeks at a time, he barely wanted to get off the couch because of dizziness, nausea and headaches that defied pain medication.
I know there are those who lost sympathy for Roberts over the years, believing he became thin-skinned when his career hit the rocks. I wasn’t around the team regularly in those years, so it’s hard for me to judge. As a younger player, he was always cordial with writers, trying to give helpful answers even if he didn’t care to dig too deep.
But it did seem cruel that when the Orioles finally became a good team, 11 years into Roberts’ tenure, he was in no shape to help. I remember watching him smile in the dugout during the 2012 playoffs, wondering if he felt a full part of what was happening.
The worst thing was that a prime Brian Roberts would have been the perfect player for those Orioles, with his ability to work the count and get on base for the club’s free-swinging sluggers. He was just a few years too late.
I admired Roberts for fighting to come back last year. Many fans and analysts had written him off. His franchise had learned not to count on him. He could easily have stayed away and collected his $10 million.
But before all the injuries and the steroid admission and everything else, Roberts was a guy who burned to play good baseball. At 35, he wasn’t ready to let that go. So he became the club’s starting second baseman again in the second half of 2013 and played the best he had in three years. This time, of course, the Orioles couldn’t make the postseason. Bad timing again. At least Roberts got to play for a winning team, something he would’ve killed for from 2001 to 2011.
His departure wasn’t a surprise. If he can find a third wind in New York, bless him.
But to my mind, Roberts will always hold a unique place in Orioles history. He was a player best appreciated if you went to the park day after day and saw all the ways he affected a game. Perhaps his passion for making the best of his talents carried him to dark places. But I don’t believe in curses, and no top player deserves to squander all of his best years in a place where the franchise has lost hope.
I guess I’ll always be a little sad when I think about him.