Beating odds routine for B. Roberts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There was absolutely no way he wasn't going to become a major-league player, not when he could tag along with his father/coach to the campus diamond and run down balls hit by B. J. Surhoff or run the bases while dreaming a child's dream.

Of course, there was no way Brian Roberts would really grow up to become a major-league baseball player. There was no way of knowing how much he would grow up.

That's what happens when your 5-year-old body is laid out on a hospital table and people wearing masks stand over you with knives to carve a Y-shaped incision in your chest. They do this to stop your heart while a machine keeps you alive so they can close the quarter-sized hole in an organ smaller than a fist. And even when the heart starts beating again and the Y becomes a badge of courage, it takes more than two years to reach the first percentile of growth for kids your age.

"There have been a lot of obstacles in my way," Roberts said, "but I've really put a lot of trust in my faith. I believe there's a purpose and a plan for everything."

Everyone knew when Roberts became the first member of the Orioles' 1999 draft class to reach the major leagues that a long shot had come home.

"This is what I've wanted to do since I can remember," Roberts said. "I was influenced a lot by my dad and by being around it my whole life. This is what I wanted to be."

Roberts, 23, arrived June 14 after regular shortstop Mike Bordick separated a shoulder the night before against the New York Mets. Roberts entered last night's game batting .282 as an everyday major-league shortstop. He has never played an entire minor-league season. Mostly, he never considered any alternative.

"This has been my goal - to be here as soon as possible no matter what. Now that I've made it, my goal is to stay here," he said. "You change goals. My goal was to make it. I've made it, now I want to stay."

Brian's father, Mike, developed almost two generations of players as head baseball coach at North Carolina. Among them were Surhoff, an eventual No. 1 draft pick, and future major-leaguers Walt Weiss, Scott Bradley and Chris Vaccaro.

"Those players had a tremendous influence on him," Mike Roberts said. "All of them are great people - great role models - with wonderful work habits. I think they influenced him in a lot of positive ways, not only as a player but also as a person."

Few in his or any clubhouse have dealt with circumstances similar to Roberts'. Born with a congenital heart defect that left him breathless and fatigued during exercise, he faced the biases of a small high school athlete who ultimately overcame his size in college. But even after being selected by the Orioles amid their historic 1999 haul of seven of the top 50 selections in the amateur draft, he lost most of his second professional season to a severe arm injury at the club's minor-league complex.

Roberts made it to Camden Yards little more than a year after damaging his arm while warming for the first exhibition game of spring training. The injury became a source for internal finger-pointing within the organization, but to Roberts, long the smallest kid in his class, it was just something else to overcome.

"He remained extremely small for a long, long time after his surgery," said Mike Roberts, who taught the son to switch-hit before he'd reached kindergarten. "Brian was never, ever the best player on his Little League team or his high school team. But he never stopped working. I knew the fundamentals were there; we just hoped the strength was going to come."

Roberts, now 5 feet 9, 170 pounds, made himself bigger by lifting weights midway through high school. He made himself faster by hiring track coaches to tutor him. Mostly, he watched and listened to everything, and finally was named All-State his senior year.

Roberts wasn't drafted out of high school. During his senior year, his father drove Brian to Carolina's conference rival, Clemson, to meet Tigers coach Jack Leggett, who had recently passed along pitchers named Kris Benson, Billy Koch and Ken Vining to the major leagues. "I told him I'd pay his tuition if he could take Brian," Mike Roberts remembers. "He said he couldn't use him."

When Brian arrived on campus, he was constantly reminded of his connections. Then the kid who had never been the best player on his team tied the UNC single-season batting mark with a .427 average and bettered the single-season hit record of his idol Surhoff.

"It was very difficult for him. I was the only Division I coach to offer him a scholarship. We really wanted him to go somewhere else. He wanted to go somewhere else. He just didn't have any offers. He wanted to play in a good ACC or SEC program. It was difficult," Roberts said.

"I heard it a lot in the fall, but it went away in the spring," Roberts recalled about the taunts.

Roberts led the nation in stolen bases in his sophomore season, but any joy was erased by Mike's resignation as baseball coach. The Tar Heels had won almost 800 games under Roberts, but a feeling persisted that the program had leveled off.

"That was very tough for him," Brian said. "I really didn't know what the next move was."

For Mike, it was accepting a job at UNC-Asheville. For Brian, it was a transfer to South Carolina, where he played for Olympic assistant coach Ray Tanner. With the Gamecocks, Roberts again led the nation in stolen bases and forced major-league teams pay attention this time. Baseball America designated him as the nation's top defensive college player. Fittingly, the Orioles used a compensatory draft pick, gained by Roberto Alomar's free-agent defection to the Cleveland Indians, on a another switch-hitter comfortable with a glove.

The Orioles made Roberts the 50th player taken in the 1999 draft. During the Orioles' next homestand, he walked to the far corner of the clubhouse where he proudly shook hands and sat to speak again with Surhoff - "a very special day," he recalls two years later.

July 12 will be another special day. The Orioles begin the second half at Turner Field against the Atlanta Braves. Surhoff will be in left field for the Braves, and Roberts at shortstop for the Orioles. More than 15 years will have passed since one was a child and the other a college third baseman.

"This has been a great ride," he says. "It's awesome. I'm sure looking back on things, I'll realize how quick it was."

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