SAN FRANCISCO -- Less than an hour earlier, in the same seat that Brian Roberts was occupying, Barry Bonds had sat in front of a mass of reporters, answering questions about the home run record, disapproving crowds and his status as the All-Star Game's main event.
Then came Roberts, the Orioles' slight-statured second baseman, speaking in front of a grand total of three reporters. "I bet there were the same number of you guys here for [Bonds]," Roberts joked.
Two years earlier, Roberts may not have been so quick to offer a self-deprecating comment. When he came to Detroit as a starter for the 2005 game, he wondered whether his torrid first half was a fluke and whether he would ever again be considered one of the game's top players.
The doubts stayed with him through a gruesome arm injury in September 2005 that left his playing future in doubt. But as he spoke yesterday, the Orioles' lone All-Star representative sounded like a man who was completely comfortable with his environment, a man who feels his second midseason classic won't be his last.
"You're around the same guys and you feel like you belong with them more than I did the first time," Roberts said. "I really felt a little out of place the first time. But I had to learn to get over that hump and realize that they're the same as I am. You play the same game and hopefully you play it well."
Roberts' first-half numbers certainly prove him worthy of inclusion in tonight's game, where he'll be a reserve for the American League team, managed by Jim Leyland. He is batting .322 with 111 hits, 56 runs, five homers, 27 RBIs and an American League-leading 27 stolen bases.
And though the 5-foot-9 Roberts shrinks when asked about his place in the second base hierarchy, National League All-Star second baseman Orlando Hudson said Roberts is absolutely one of the best in the league.
"There's nothing that Brian Roberts can't do," said Hudson, a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. "He'll steal you 40. He can hit you 10 to 15 [homers] a year. He'll hit you .320 to .330. He can drive in 50 to 60 runs. He's going to score over 100 runs and he's going to play great defense.
"I'm telling you, man, I've played with pitchers that pitch around him. The guy can play. He's a tremendous player. Guys in this league know what he can do."
So do Orioles fans, who have made the second baseman perhaps the team's most popular player since Cal Ripken Jr. But is Roberts ready to do what Ripken did: become the face of the franchise, the leader of the team both on the field and in the clubhouse?
"The face of anything, what does that even mean?" asked Roberts, whose popularity comes from not only his hard-nosed style of play, but also his charitable contributions off the field. "I think fans still think of Cal Ripken as the face of the Orioles. I really don't know what they consider me. I can't answer that.
"I don't know if I change too much. You always try to lead on the field. I try to be a guy that's ready to play every day, that comes into spring training ready to play, plays through injuries. I try to be that guy. But I don't know if I'll ever be that guy that screams and yells at people or gets in people's faces.
"For the most part, you're talking about professionals that need to know how to do their job and should be able to prepare themselves to the highest level. I'm happy to be a leader. I'll happily be whatever this franchise wants me to be. But I think we need to do it as a whole and not just one person."
Those in the Orioles' clubhouse who are close to Roberts say he is considered one of the team's on-field leaders, but it's out of character for him to take a more vocal role in the clubhouse.
"I don't think because Brian is hitting .330 or whatever makes him a leader. I don't think because he's making a lot of money makes him a leader," Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar said.
"We get caught up in that sometimes, thinking that if a guy has a high salary, if a guy is doing the best, then he's the leader. I don't think Brian Roberts is the leader of this club. I think Brian Roberts is the energy of this team. I think Brian Roberts is the leadoff hitter for the Baltimore Orioles and his job is to get on base and see pitches. I think Brian leads by example and he does a great job."
Said Jay Gibbons: "You can't force a guy like Millar to shut up and you can't force a guy like Brian to talk. People's personalities are how they are. Either you lead by example, or you lead by being a rah-rah guy, or you don't lead at all. Brian is just not a rah-rah guy. He's a guy that just does his job."
Roberts said the turning point of his career came when the Orioles traded Jerry Hairston, making Roberts the undisputed second baseman.
"It was frustrating and I probably didn't handle it the way I should have," Roberts said. "I got down more than I should have. ... I felt like my abilities weren't able to come out. I felt like I was this kind of player and couldn't make it happen in some ways."
Roberts said he has since learned that baseball isn't everything and a couple of 0-for-4's aren't the end of the world. Both Millar and Gibbons acknowledged that Roberts had a tendency in the past to mope if things weren't going his way.
"Everybody is going to get frustrated or think about themselves at some point, but I think I'm much better than I've ever been about it," he said. "Even when I was hitting .180 in April, I wasn't all that concerned. Yeah, I had to let out frustration now and then, but, for the most part, I thought I'd be where I should. I think confidence has a lot to do with how you react in certain situations."
ALL-STAR GAME -- Tonight, 8:25, AT&T; Park, San Francisco TV: Chs. 45, 5
CF Ichiro Suzuki
SS Derek Jeter
1B David Ortiz
RF Vladimir Guerrero
LF Magglio Ordonez
C Ivan Rodriguez
P Dan Haren
SS Jose Reyes
LF Barry Bonds
3B David Wright
2B Chase Utley