An ode to Dave Roberts
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Dave Roberts’ value cannot be measured by statistics.
Roberts is that rarest of ballplayers: Somebody who’s good for the team even when he’s not playing. Unfortunately for the Giants, that was all too often over the last couple of years, partly explaining why they released Roberts on Thursday.
Sentiment is a luxury the Giants can’t afford. Eugenio Velez is proving capable of handling the backup outfielder’s role Roberts would have occupied. Velez also switch hits, plays second base and is faster than Roberts. As Giants general manager Brian Sabean said, “I told him [Roberts] we’re on a path to get younger and healthier. Right now that’s not on his resume.”
Still, as Roberts prepares to clean out his Scottsdale Stadium locker — his gear remained in it after he departed Thursday; he had mentioned dropping by one more time to bid goodbye to players he had missed — it’s only right to salute a truly fine individual.
Aaron Boone, another player I’ve known whose character eclipses his statistics, said upon being traded from the Reds to the Yankees that in the end, the relationships a ballplayer forges within the game are the richest assets he derives from it. Certainly a guy can feel fulfilled by making a lot of money or winning a World Series ring. But baseball, which throws disparate men together for 200 or more days a year, forces you to bond. Pity those who are incapable of forming or unwilling to relish those bonds. The best things in life, after all, are free.
Roberts knows this. So he savored the people who surrounded him. He offered a hello and a big smile to anybody who crossed his path, whether it was a clubhouse attendant, a reporter or a teammate.
On the Giants, he was closest to fellow veterans Randy Winn and Rich Aurilia. They were dubbed the “Rat Pack,” owing to the Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin-Sammy Davis Jr. triumvirate of the 1960s (no, we’re not forgetting Joey Bishop or Peter Lawford, but let’s face it, the others were the Big Three). But Roberts didn’t confine himself to any clique. When Emmanuel Burriss, Rajai Davis or Velez showed their inexperience on the field, Roberts counseled them afterward, doling out fatherly advice on how to avoid repeating such transgressions. When Matt Cain had endured one luckless defeat too many, Roberts was there to remind him that there was nothing wrong with him and assure him that he’ll ultimately be rewarded. This might sound like self-evident stuff, but it’s easy to lose perspective under the pressure big leaguers face. Roberts was always willing to offer that perspective in a patient, understanding, caring package.
During Barry Bonds’ final ascent to the home run record in 2007, Roberts tirelessly answered reporters’ incessant questions about the slugger. Roberts didn’t do this to win points with the media or seem better than the other players. He did this because he knew the media’s demands wouldn’t subside, and by answering a question here or a question there he could spare teammates some of the hassle. In short, he took one (in this case, hundreds) for the team.
I’ve been blessed to cover baseball for most of my career since 1991, and when I grope through my memory for other players who possessed the same intangible worth that Roberts brought the Giants, I find few parallels.
There was Casey Candaele, who everybody thought was too small, too slow and just not physically gifted enough to play Major League baseball. His mere presence (never mind his outrageous sense of humor) inspired teammates to give their best.
There was Pete Harnisch, who pitched only every five days but provided influence constantly. Like Candaele, Harnisch had a stiletto-sharp wit that he could use to motivate, ridicule, or lead his teammates. I also remember how he literally gave up a start toward the end of the 2000 season with Cincinnati so Ron Villone could get a shot at his 10th win. Not only did Villone reach double figures, he also struck out 16 in a 150-pitch complete game that remains one of the most stunning efforts I’ve seen.
Roberts has been the same way, always there for others. It’s no surprise that he was a championship-winning quarterback in high school — playing the most important position in the ultimate team sport. He’s no longer a Giant, and he might have trouble finding a Major League job. But any team that picks him up ought to hold onto him. He’s a winner in a profound sense of the word.
– Chris Haft