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Roberts opens eyes, using past demotion as a wake-up call

If Brian Roberts can establish himself as a player who belongs in the big leagues this time, he'll probably look back and smile at how miserable he felt last year when the Orioles demoted him.

The Orioles recalled Roberts from Triple-A Ottawa last week when starting second baseman Jerry Hairston broke a bone in his right foot, derailing what might have been an All-Star season.

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For Roberts, the injury to his good friend represented another opportunity to prove himself, but he still thinks the best chance came exactly one year earlier.

On May 21, 2002, Hairston was struggling, so the Orioles promoted Roberts from Triple-A and made him the new starting second baseman. Seven weeks later, with Roberts' confidence diminished and his average at .234, they sent him back to the minors.

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"I think I made a conscious effort to become a better player when I got sent down," Roberts said. "That was frustrating. I took that really hard. And I felt like I had to go back and re-teach myself what my role was."

Roberts played winter ball for the first time in his career and led the Puerto Rican Winter League with 57 hits and 12 stolen bases. He hit .322 and posted a .417 on-base percentage.

The success carried over into this season. Before getting promoted he was batting .315 for Ottawa. He led the International League with 36 runs and was second with 19 stolen bases.

Roberts, 25, arrived in the Orioles' clubhouse last week with his confidence restored, even though the stakes are higher than ever.

In 2001, when the Orioles promoted Roberts to fill in for injured shortstop Mike Bordick, Roberts had played just 170 minor league games and people thought he was rushed. He hit a respectable .253, but his nerves were obvious as he committed 11 errors in 20 games.

Last year, everyone thought Roberts was ready, but as a switch-hitter, he couldn't shake a season-long slump batting from the right side.

Roberts had always posted fairly similar numbers from both sides of the plate, but he hit .146 from the right side with the Orioles, and .264 from the left side.

The same thing hampered him at Triple-A Rochester, where he hit .200 from the right side and .294 from the left side.

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So he worked on it at winter ball, and the results were apparent at Ottawa.

In 41 at-bats from his once-troubled right side, he was batting .366, complementing his steady .299 clip from the left side.

"Brian just needs to go out and relax," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said.

"He came up last year and played real tight, and as we went along, he seemed to try to do more and more things that he was less capable of doing on an everyday basis, and it caught up with him.

"He's an intelligent kid, he's a hard worker and he's got a lot of talent.

"There's going to be a time when Brian's going to play in the big leagues and be a very good player. Is the time now? I don't know. We'll see."

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Roberts will get most of the playing time at second base until Hairston returns, which is expected to take six to eight weeks. "It's Jerry's job," Roberts said. "Hopefully, he's going to be fine as soon as possible."

The Orioles have to like the fact Hairston should be healthy just before the July 31 trade deadline. If Roberts shines, they might be able to use one of them in a trade. But if Roberts struggles again, it will raise serious doubts about his future.

After this season, he'll be out of minor league options, meaning the Orioles will have to put him through waivers if he doesn't make next year's team coming out of spring training.

With the way Hairston has played, it would be easy for Roberts to feel stuck.

But before getting promoted from Ottawa, Roberts was getting more chances to play shortstop again. He had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow in April 2000, and the team said one reason they moved him to second base last season was to protect his arm.

"My arm's fine," Roberts said. "I've tried to let them know that it's fine.

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"It's good to get back over there [at shortstop]. It was fun. I feel comfortable there. I have no problems playing either one. I just want to put myself in the best position to get back here, whatever that may be."

No one has ever questioned Roberts' commitment. He has had countless conversations with teammates, such as Jeff Conine, looking for ways to transfer success from the minors to the majors.

"The basic concept of the game is the same," Conine said of the advice he gave Roberts. "Concentrate on playing the game the way you know how to play it, and everything else will fall into place.

"I noticed a big improvement [this spring]. For someone as young as he is, he's got a tremendous idea what's going on at the plate, what to swing at and what not to swing at."

After going 1-for-5 in his 2003 debut, Roberts came back Thursday and studied the videotape from each of his at-bats. He rewound the tape three times when he saw one particular pitch he ripped off Anaheim pitcher Aaron Sele for a foul ball down the right-field line.

That night, everything seemed to fall into place. With the Orioles trailing 4-3, Roberts came up with the bases loaded in the ninth inning and hit a grand slam off All-Star closer Troy Percival.

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Roberts said he had never hit a grand slam in his life, not even in Little League. When he crossed home plate, he tried hard not to smile.

"I was smiling ear-to-ear inside," he said.


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