Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 52: Catching Up With Dave Roberts
Steve Eby | On 12, Feb 2016
As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 52 days
Former outfielder Dave Roberts may be most famous for an October evening at Fenway Park in 2004, but his long and productive career actually started for the Cleveland Indians back in 1999 – the only year of his career that Roberts’ sported a #52 on his back.
On August 7, All-Star Kenny Lofton was about to miss his ninth straight game due to a strained hamstring and Mike Hargrove’s club was going with youngster Jacob Cruz a lot as a substitute in center field. That was when the organization called up the young Roberts to help spark the top of the Indians mighty lineup for their game in Tampa Bay.
“Just walking into Tropicana Field was amazing,” Roberts remembers. “We were playing the Devil Rays during my first game and just walking out onto a Major League field (is a great memory). I looked at the lineup card and saw myself with Omar Vizquel, Roberto Alomar, Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar and Travis Fryman, so it was pretty special.”
The 1999 Indians were a juggernaut offensively, scoring over 1,000 during the regular season. Roberts came right in and started his first game and the Tribe did not miss a beat as they defeated the Devil Rays by a score of 15-10. Seven players had multi-hit games for Cleveland that evening, but Roberts was the most unlikely in his Major League debut by going 3-5 with a double, walk and stolen base out of the leadoff spot. The rest of the players realized immediately that Roberts was legitimate.
“Just being greeted by David Justice and all of those guys,” Roberts said of his veteran teammates, “it was a special thing for me—it really was. I learned a lot from those guys.”
Roberts stuck with the Big League club for the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs – an experience not lost on the future October hero.
“That whole first year was pretty special,” Roberts said fondly. “Getting to know guys like Dwight Gooden and guys who are still good friends with me to this day – Sandy, Robbie, Omar and Kenny—they helped me learn what it means to be a Major League player.”
The Indians rolled to a 97-65 record and matched up with the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series. Roberts got his first taste of postseason baseball in a Game Four 23-7 blowout at the hands of the BoSox and then was forced into action during the decisive Game Five when Lofton was injured sliding head first into first base.
“One of the things that I really remember was that playoff game where Kenny blew out his shoulder against the Red Sox,” Roberts said. “I had to go in there and had an at bat against Pedro Martinez.”
Roberts went 0-for-3 during the ALDS loss to Boston, including a strikeout and a line out to short against the eventual Cy Young Award winning Martinez. Roberts admits that facing Martinez as a rookie during a stretch of six hitless innings out of the bullpen is a little intimidating.
“That was my first playoff experience, so it was pretty nerve wracking.”
When Lofton returned healthy for the 2000 and 2001 seasons, Roberts’ time for the Indians was somewhat short. After appearing in 41 games in ’99, Roberts played only a combined 34 games the following two seasons. Two days before Christmas in 2001, the Tribe traded Roberts to the Dodgers in exchange for minor leaguers Christian Brandenbaugh and Nial Hughes. During his time in LA, Roberts became an everyday player until he was traded down the stretch in the middle of the 2004 season where he became a legend for the Red Sox.
“I pretty much get asked about it every day,” Roberts said, “especially during the baseball season from some Red Sox faithful thanking me.”
Roberts is talking about a moment that turned the tides in a series that was all-but over and done with that October. During Game Four of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, the Red Sox were down three games to none and faced a 4-3 deficit in the ninth inning against the legendary Mariano Rivera. Kevin Millar drew a walk and Roberts pinch-ran, when then-Red Sox manager Terry Francona gave him the steal sign.
“It was just one of those situations where it was a big spot and I felt that I was prepared and Tito gave me the green light,” Roberts said. “I was with a great group of players and at that time I was a fourth outfielder, so that was my role. I prepared and watched Yankee relievers, particularly Mariano, and studied their tendencies. So once I was summoned to go out to first base, I knew I had a job to do.”
Rivera threw over to first three times before delivering his first pitch, one of which nearly picked Roberts off and ended the Red Sox season.
“Obviously, there were a lot of nerves, but there was a lot of positive excitement and energy, too,” Roberts said of the historic moment. “There were three throw-overs and one was pretty close. But once he threw over three times, I had a pretty good idea that he was going to deliver the ball to the plate.”
Roberts took off on the first pitch and the rest was history.
“I got a good jump,” Roberts said. “Jorge Posada made a great throw, but fortunately I was called safe.”
He was safe and came home on a base hit by Bill Mueller. The Red Sox won the game in extra innings and then went on to win their next seven games and their first World Series title in 86 years. Roberts’ stolen base, which is now known as “The Steal” in Beantown, was the turning point for the historic series.
“To kind of recount that and look at footage, it’s pretty amazing to go back to that moment.”
Roberts’ career in Boston was highlighted by the one stolen base and then came to a close when he was traded again, this time to the San Diego Padres for Jay Payton, David Pauley and Ramon Vazquez. It was during his time in San Diego that Roberts had his most individual success, including the 2006 season where he batted .293 with 49 steals in what he considers his best season ever.
“Yeah, 2006 was my best year,” Roberts said. “It was fun.”
The fun led him to sign a big free agency deal with the division rival San Francisco Giants the following season, but the Bay Area crowd never really got to see Roberts at full strength.
“I’ve really got no regrets in my career,” Roberts said, “but the one that I kind of do have is that once I got to San Francisco I had a knee injury and had to have elbow surgery – I was just banged up and I couldn’t perform the way I wanted to. As much as I loved being in San Francisco, I just didn’t perform the way I wanted to.”
The string of injuries forced Roberts’ playing career to a close after 2008, but he didn’t take long to jump back into the game. After spending one season as a studio analyst and a substitute color commentator for the Red Sox, Roberts became a coach for the Padres’ Major League team in 2010.
“It (was) basically just being Buddy Black’s bench coach,” Roberts said of his first coaching gig. “Controlling the running game (was) one responsibility, so I work with the pitchers and catchers and get a relationship with those guys. I also have to get an overall pulse of the clubhouse as far going over game situations and posing different situations to Buddy.”
Roberts holds the distinction of being the second most efficient base stealer (minimum 175 steals) of all time, behind only Rickey Henderson. What he passes on to his players is the importance of when to steal a base, not how many.
“I took pride as a base stealer to be efficient. I’d try to steal bases when bases need to be stolen and not just try to accrue a stolen base number. I did a lot of work. I studied on my technique, my skills, and I’d watch a lot of video. I’d try to learn pitcher’s tendencies and things like that. That’s definitely what I try to pass on to our current players.”
Roberts also stresses the importance of separating base-running from hitting and defense as well.
“I think the one thing that I did a really good job with (in my career), as I look back, was that I separated (my offense, defense and base-running),” Roberts said. “I tried to take pride in separating all three facets of the game. I think that when I was hitting and working as a hitter, I tried to be the best I could. As a base runner, I separated the defense from the hitting. When I was playing the field, it didn’t matter whether I was swinging the bat well or not. I tried to take as many hits away as I possibly could. I think that across the board they were equally important to me.”
A lot of what Roberts uses as a coach came from his manager in Boston, Francona, who is now the manager of the Indians.
“He’s loose. He’s a guy who is pretty even keel and has a relaxed clubhouse,” Roberts said of Francona. “He’s real focused though. You don’t want to mistake his calm demeanor and kind of jovial side to a lack of competitiveness because he’s very fiery when he needs to be. Players, I know myself, really enjoy playing for him.”
After the 2015 season, Roberts left the Padres for his first Major League managing position with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 2016 season will be Roberts’ first test as a manager.
While coaching takes up most of his time during the summer months, Roberts continues to find time for a few other things as well.
“During the season, obviously I’m coaching, but during the offseason I’m spending time with my two kids and my wife,” Roberts said. “My son is 13 and my daughter is nine. We also own a winery, so we kind of tend to our winery in the offseason.
“I had a great run as a player, but I have really embraced the coaching and the opportunity to teach.”
Photo: 2000 Pacific Trading Cards