Roberts' return to L.A. "was meant to be"

BySteve Wulf via ESPN logo
Monday, October 9, 2017
ESPN

"All men are created equal", in one sense, but all men have different characteristics and qualities. The good leader knows how to handle each individual player. -- The Dodger Way To Play Baseball, 1954, by Al Campanis.

Here and now seems like a good time and place to look back on how Dave "Doc" Roberts came to be the manager of a storied franchise in the midst of an epic season.

Here is the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh, and now, Aug. 22, a sudden downpour is soaking Roberts' walk to the ballpark and driving the autograph-seekers away.

It's fitting. Roberts is the skipper of the Dodgers, and Clemente started his pro career with their farm club in Montreal in 1954, the same year that Brooklyn player personnel director Al Campanis put "The Dodger Way" into book form.

The bridge crosses the Allegheny River, which passes through New York State just below Jamestown, which is where Roberts got his professional start in 1994.

"We were a Detroit farm team," he says, "but that's where I first learned the Dodger Way. Our manager was Dave Anderson, the former Dodger shortstop. God, I loved that year. I found out I could actually play professional baseball."

As for the drenching, well, what's a little rain when you've defied the odds, the doubters, cancer, subtle prejudice and the vicissitudes of baseball. The Dodgers came into Pittsburgh riding the best 64-game stretch in franchise history, and surely they will win their fifth straight NL West title. But no team can stay this hot.

The Dodgers have been winning because of time-honored fundamentals, hard work and a team-first mentality, but also because of a cutting edge emphasis on analytics, video study and clubhouse dynamics -- a blend of the old school with the new age. They're not afraid to look to the fresh faces at the top of the order -- Chris Taylor, Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger -- and they appreciate the value of veterans such asJustin Turner, Chase Utley, Adrian Gonzalez and Rich Hill.

Bridging the generation gap is a 45-year-old father of two who is married to his high school sweetheart, a history major at the alma mater of Jackie Robinson, a small but speedy outfielder who came up memorably big for another storied franchise 13 years ago, a part-time vintner (Red Stitch Wines) and full-time inspiration, as well as the first minority (Japanese-African-American) manager for the team that fielded the first black player exactly 70 years ago. Yeah, all the same guy.

And if Roberts is a little tired after the marathon start to a four-game series the night before -- 4 hours, 35 minutes of baseball and a couple of postgame hours spent at a wine bar with Dodgers owner Mark Walter -- he's not showing it. "It's a grind. But it's a grind that I love. Plus, we found out a little bit more about ourselves last night."

But there's another reason the previous night's win means a little bit extra to Roberts.

"Last night would've been my dad's 69th birthday."

Be daring! Be aggressive in your attack! Take chances! -- The Dodger Way

The rain has stopped now, and Roberts is drip-drying himself on some stationary seats in the plaza outside PNC Park.

"You know what I love about being a Dodger? The family thing. Even though the O'Malleys don't own the team any more, there's still this sense of being part of a large family. So I do miss not sharing this season with my father."

Waymon Roberts passed away on March 17, two weeks shy of Opening Day. A retired master gunnery sergeant in the Marines, he followed the Dodgers religiously. "We didn't talk every day, but I knew he was watching. There's been so much this season that I could have told him about."

There was the April call-up of rookie Cody Bellinger that jump-started the offense. There was the scuffle in San Diego on June 30, when Roberts shoved Padres manager Andy Green as the umpires tried to separate them. "Hey, I was out there defending my guys. My father would've approved."

Roberts especially missed having his father around July 6 at Dodger Stadium. That was Dave Roberts Bobblehead Night -- 13 years after the first Dave Roberts Bobblehead Day at Dodger Stadium had to be cancelled because he had just been traded to the Boston Red Sox.

But that July evening wasn't just about the figurine. Singing the national anthem was his daughter, 12-year-old Emme Roberts, and throwing out the first ball was his son, 15-year-old Cole. As his wife Tricia recalls, "The Dodgers' front office was at Waymon's funeral and heard Emme sing there -- all day long I kept thinking that my father-in-law would have gotten such a kick out of her getting 'discovered' at his funeral."

Well, Emme nailed it with a soaring "land of the free" as Dave beamed and raised his arms in celebration. Then the right-handed Cole, who has baseball dreams of his own, went out to the mound and threw a perfect strike to his left-handed father/catcher. As for the game itself, the Dodgers staged a four-run rally in the ninth to beat the Diamondbacks 5-4 and take a 5 -game lead in the NL West. "It was a perfect day," Roberts said afterward.

Watching the proceedings was Dave's mother Eiko. "This season has been a real blessing for all of us, but especially for my mom," Roberts says. "She says she doesn't know what she'd do if it weren't for the Dodgers."

Eiko and Waymon Roberts met when he was stationed in Japan -- Naha, Okinawa, to be precise. That's where Dave was born in 1972. Their family of four, including Dave and his sister Melissa, went base to base -- California, Hawaii, North Carolina, back to Japan -- until they settled in San Diego when Dave was 12.

Just a few minutes with Roberts is all you need to know he was raised well. He is friendly, communicative and considerate. He's about you as much as he is about himself.

"He's probably the best human being I've ever met," says his friend and reserve first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Or, as Rich Aurilia, his former Giant teammate and current partner in Red Stitch Wines, says, "If you don't like Dave Roberts, you'd better go look in the mirror."

Growing up in a military family taught him manners and discipline; living in an interracial household broadened his worldview. And his parents encouraged him to make his own choices.

Roberts made two important ones at Rancho Buena Vista High. That's where he started courting Tricia. "I used to waitress at a restaurant," she says, "and Dave would come in to eat so that we could spend some time together. He'd save his money so that he could leave me a big tip."

And because Dave was also an option quarterback, a point guard and an outfielder in San Diego's very competitive sports environment, he had to choose a sport after college. Even though the Air Force Academy recruited him to be their QB, baseball won out. He opted to go to UCLA as a recruited walk-on despite other scholarship offers.

"I often think of how that one epiphany led me to where I am today," a fully dried Roberts is now saying in his office. "I go to UCLA because Jackie Robinson went there. I end up playing for the Dodgers, the team that opened the door not only to him and other African-Americans, but to Japanese players, as well. I learn how to steal bases from Maury Wills, and now I'm wearing his No. 30, talking baseball with Sandy Koufax and trying to bring the first World Series trophy to Dodger Stadium since 1988.

"I guess that you could say that it was meant to be."

Confidence tides players through adversity. -- The Dodger Way

It hasn't all come easy for Dave Roberts.

After three years as a starter at UCLA, he ended his career as the school's all-time leader in stolen bases and signed with the Tigers, who drafted him in the less-than-glamorous 28th round after his senior year. They sent him to Jamestown to play for Anderson. "That was my first year as a manager," says Anderson, who's now an infield instructor in the Orioles' system. "I pretty much had to rely on everything the Dodgers had taught me.

"And all of it had come out of that Al Campanis book that Tommy Lasorda preached from. Not only how to play -- how you had to take on 3-0, how you had to lay down a bunt -- but also how to dress for BP and how to represent the team.

"My main job with Dave was to turn him into a major league outfielder. He didn't need much help on offense, but he couldn't throw very well, so we spent a lot of that summer long-tossing.

"Even then, he had great people skills. The other players gravitated toward him. There was one time, though, that I had to fine him. I caught him eating on the bench during a game. That was not the the Dodger Way. I felt bad about it, though. 'Dave,' I told him, 'the other guys look up to you. You have to set an example.'"

It was in those early years in the Tigers' farm system that Roberts acquired the nickname Doc. The reason had nothing to do with his mental acumen, though he did have that. It was just an offshoot of his initials: DR. And that led to Hit Doctor, which was shortened to Doc.

He made the 1995 Florida State League All-Star team playing for Anderson at Class A Lakeland, but the next season, the Tigers sent him to another Class A team, the Visalia Oaks, a co-op team in the California League for marginal prospects. He thought about quitting.

Fortunately, Waymon convinced him to stick with it. "My dad said, 'Keep trying to play.' The main reason I decided to continue was because I was going to be close to home... I stole a bunch of bases and got to Double-A. That was a pivotal year for me."

But the Tigers still didn't consider him much of a prospect. They made him an afterthought in a 1998 midseason trade that sent pitcher Tim Worrell to the Indians for outfielder Geronimo Berroa.

Over the next three seasons, the Indians would occasionally call him up from Triple-A Buffalo for his legs, but they never saw him as more than a fifth outfielder. He did get the opportunity, though, to play for Charlie Manuel, who played for Walter Alston, who began managing the Dodgers in 1954.

By the time the millennium arrived, the Dodgers had fallen on hard times. Lasorda was gone, and so was Campanis, who had resigned as GM in '87 after suggesting on ABC's Nightline that the reason there were no black managers was because "they may not have some of the necessities.". There was one area, though, in which the Dodgers were always good: scouting players. They lost Clemente back in '54 not because they underestimated him, but because of a loophole in the rules governing what were then called "bonus babies," and because Branch Rickey had moved to the Pirates and taken some of the Dodger scouts with him.

That was a big loss for the Dodgers. But 47 years later, around Christmas 2001, they made a steal of their own by acquiring another 175-pound outfielder for two pitchers who would never make the majors: Christian Bridenbaugh and Nial Hughes.

That's how Dave Roberts first became a Dodger.

The steal of any base is dependent upon a good lead, a quick start and a good slide. -- The Dodger Way

At the invitation of a visitor, Roberts is leafing through the 2003 Baseball Preview Issue of ESPN The Magazine. On page 74 is a photo act entitled "Let There Be Light" about players who suddenly came to light in 2002 after years in the shadows. There's Raul Ibanez, Joey Eischen, Mark Bellhorn -- and Dave Roberts.

When Roberts gets to his portrait, he laughs and says," Look how young I am. Wait 'til I show this to Cole."

At the time, Roberts was coming off a year in which he hit .277 with 45 stolen bases to help the Dodgers win a surprising 92 games under manager Jim Tracy. Next to the artful photo is a blurb written by Ed McGregor: "Roberts, who studied history at UCLA, learned how the past impacts the present when he met his doppelganger in Dodgers legend Maury Wills. 'He taught me a little guy can dominate a game, even with no homers.'"

After eight years trying to make the majors, the 29-year-old Roberts had made a name for himself. He became such a fan favorite in Los Angeles that the Dodgers had him on their bobblehead schedule for 2004. As of July 31 that year, he had stolen 33 of 34 bases.

Tricia was eight months pregnant with Emme. But just as the 1 p.m. PT trading deadline had passed, Roberts got a call. In one of a string of moves, general manager Paul DePodesta traded him to the Red Sox for an outfield prospect named Henri Stanley.

Roberts flew to Tampa to join the team there, and Tricia packed up their houses in Los Angeles and San Diego. "I had to do it in three days," she says. "Otherwise, the doctor wouldn't let me travel and have the baby in Boston. In the end, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us, but at the time, it felt like the worst."

Both the Dodgers and Red Sox made the playoffs that year. The Sox, however, made history.

Cut to the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, Fenway Park. The Red Sox are about to be swept by the Yankees, because they're trailing 4-3 in the game, and the great closer Mariano Rivera is on the mound. But he walks Kevin Millar on five pitches to lead off the inning, and Red Sox manager Terry Francona turns to Roberts, winks and says, "You know what to do."

Looking back on the moment, Roberts has said, "Wills once told me that there will come a point in my career when everyone in the ballpark will know that I have to steal a base, and I will steal that base. When I got out there, I knew that was what Maury Wills was talking about."

Take a look again.

Roberts, who had been studying Rivera on video, is tested by three pickoff attempts. He resumes a crooked-leg lead of 3 steps, then gets a great jump on Rivera's first pitch to left-handed hitter Bill Mueller. Catcher Jorge Posada quickly rifles the ball to shortstop Derek Jeter, who puts down a beautiful swipe tag as Roberts slides head-first into the MLB logo on the side of the bag. Second-base umpire Joe West waves Roberts safe.

Doc pumps his fist, and then, on a 1-1 pitch, Mueller singles to center field, and Roberts races home with the tying run. Three innings later, David Ortiz homers -- and the Red Sox go on to win the series and their first World Series since 1918.

Roberts made only one more appearance in that series, and none in the World Series. When the season was over, the Red Sox traded him to the Padres. He played for Bruce Bochy in San Diego for two years before following the manager to San Francisco, where he played out his improbable 10-year major league career. It was there that he befriended Aurilia.

"He actually didn't think I liked him because I never said anything to him when he stood on second base when he was with the Dodgers," Aurilia says. "But once we started playing together, I found him to be the nicest guy in the world, and we became close friends. We were also wine connoisseurs, so together with another friend, John Micek, and our wives, we teamed up with winemaker Rolando Herrera and started the Red Stitch label."

The winery's products -- pinot noirs, a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay -- are all distinctive. Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle calls them "wines for the box seats, not the bleachers."

Aurilia, who does the Giants pregame and postgame shows for CSN Bay Area, hopes they'll be served in another place. "The Dodger clubhouse at the end of October would be nice."

Baseball is in the atomic age and it must be played the modern way. -- The Dodger Way.

"Getting back into baseball saved my life," says the manager. "Literally."

Roberts was so personable, and such a folk hero in Boston, that when he finally called it quits after the '08 season, he was hired by NESN to do their Red Sox pregame and postgame shows. He liked it, and he was good at it, but ... "I missed the uniform. I missed being a member of the team."

Fortunately, baseball is a small world sewn together by interpersonal relationships -- like the 108 double red stitches that keep the two pieces of cowhide on a baseball together. When Dave Roberts reported to the Buffalo Bisons back in '98, their pitching coach was Buddy Black.

Twelve years later, Black was starting his fourth season as manager of the Padres. He asked Roberts to join the Padres as a special assistant to coach baserunning, outfield defense and bunting.

And that job led to Roberts getting a physical at the Padres' spring training camp in Peoria, a routine that proved fateful. Tests showed that Roberts had Hodgkin's lymphoma. "Stage 2," he says. "But the good thing about it is that it's treatable if you go after it."

At the time, the Roberts family was sharing spring quarters with the families of two friends, Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and pitcher Chris Young. "We had this big old mansion house," Gonzalez recalls. "Spring training is supposed to be a happy time, but suddenly life hit us hard. Doc gets his cancer diagnosis. Betsy and I were trying to have a baby and found out our efforts hadn't worked. Chris came down with a sore arm.

"Despite all that, I look back now on that spring and realize how important it was that we were all there for each other. You can get through adversity when other people care about you."

Roberts spent the summer juggling his new responsibilities with his chemo and radiation treatments. He lost his hair but not his heart. "He carried himself with great dignity throughout that whole ordeal," says Black, now the Rockies manager.

The Gonzalezes now have two daughters. After several lost seasons, Young won the 2014 AL Comeback Player of the Year with the Mariners and got a World Series ring with the 2015 Royals.

After six months of treatments, Roberts was given a clean bill of health. He was also given new responsibilities by Black: first-base coach for three seasons and then bench coach. "He was a natural," Black says. "I relied on him for his intelligence, his friendship, his leadership.

"I remember one time, one of our players stole a base in a game in which we already had a big lead. It just wasn't appropriate, and I got hot. Dave turned to me and said, 'I got this,' and he did. You knew he was going to be a manager one day."

One day is all the Padres gave him. They fired Black on June 15, 2015, let Roberts manage in his stead for a single game (a 9-1 loss to Oakland), and then named Pat Murphy the manager for the rest of the season. At the end of the 2015 season, the club chose to hire Diamondbacks third-base coach Andy Green as the new manager.

Two weeks earlier, the Dodgers and their manager, Don Mattingly, agreed to part ways after five seasons and three straight first-place finishes. Mattingly was old school, the front office was new school, and it was time to move on. They had a few candidates for the job, but Gabe Kapler, their director of player development, was considered the front-runner.

When three managerial openings were filled by white males on a single day, Oct. 29, leaving only the one vacancy at Dodger Stadium and no African-American managers anywhere else, it was hard not to draw conclusions. But then the Washington Nationals decided to go with Dusty Baker after their deal with Bud Black fell through. And Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi talked with Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto about the candidate who lost out to Scott Servais for the manager job there: Dave Roberts.

"Jerry had great things to say about Dave," Zaidi says. "But it was a lot more than his recommendation. We were looking for someone who could fit into our culture, who could manage a game and a clubhouse, who could keep an open mind and think on his feet."

"I was a little nervous," Roberts says. "I mean, I'm being interviewed to be the manager of the Dodgers. Tricia told me, 'Just be yourself. You'll be fine.'"

"Our interview process is actually fairly grueling," says the MIT-educated Zaidi, who came over to the Dodgers in 2015 after 10 years in the A's front office. "We brought him in to meet with various groups over the course of a few weeks, asked him about analytics, presented him with different scenarios, even took him through some game video situations.

"In every session, I noticed the same, funny thing. I would look around at the other people in the room while Dave was talking, and they were all nodding their heads."

It also helped that some of the veterans had quietly gone to management to endorse Roberts. They knew his character from having played with and against him. They now wanted to play for him.

On Nov. 23, 2015, Dave Roberts was named the 28th manager of the Dodgers, and the first minority manager in franchise history. "I'm very proud of that fact," Roberts says. "But I also don't think that's why I was chosen."

Says Zaidi, "We hired him because he was the best man for the job."

Teachers, coaches and managers, TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED. -- The Dodger Way.

It's Roberts' clubhouse now.

But he did weather a small crisis early in his first season. After a crushing 3-2 loss in San Francisco on a 10th-inning homer by Brandon Crawford on April 8, he hosted an impromptu postgame symposium with the veterans that delayed the team bus for 90 minutes. The next night, they turned the tide with a 3-2 victory in 10 innings.

He went on to win Manager of the Year honors by embracing both the old Dodger way of using players in multiple roles -- Campanis called it "coconut snatching" -- and a new-age use of the bullpen. In fact, Roberts set a major league record for pitching changes in a season with 606.

In the National League Division Series against the Nationals, he used six different pitchers to wangle a 4-3 win in Game 5 --Clayton Kershaw got the save. In the NL Championship Series, the Dodgers ran into the Cubs -- and destiny. Even in defeat, Roberts left on a graceful note by embracing Joe Maddon in a Wrigley hallway after Game 6.

When the Dodgers arrived for spring training this year, Roberts greeted them with a reminder that they had work to do: T-shirts that read Grit To Great.

He has made sure to speak to each and every player on the roster every day. If you want to know just how invested he is in the team, take a look at this video after a game on July 30 at Dodger Stadium when catcher Kyle Farmer hit a two-run game-winning double in his major league debut to beat the Giants 3-2 in the 11th.

"He brings such energy and passion to the game," says third baseman Justin Turner. "It's like having a teammate for a manager, and a manager for a teammate. He'll hold you accountable, but he'll also fight for you."

The clubhouse is very much a reflection of Roberts' character. His diligence is embodied by the players poring over game videos on their laptops. The roster is as diverse as he is -- it includesKenta Maeda and Yu Darvish (Japan), Hyun-Jin Ryu (South Korea), Kenley Jansen (Curacao), Yasiel Puig (Cuba) andAustin Barnes (2011 Jamestown Jammers). And Roberts' refusal to quit is echoed in the stories of the late-blooming Turner, the overlooked Taylor, the cast-off Rich Hill ...

"I can't tell you how happy I am to be here," Curtis Granderson says. "Nothing against the Mets, but I was ecstatic when I found out I had the chance to play in the postseason for Dave Roberts. He made me feel at home right away."

There is one misconception about Roberts that he himself would like to correct. "I'm not that nice. I like to think I have a little bit of an edge. I'm nice until you cross me. I do not like to lose."

In the second game of the August Pirates series, the Dodgers had an 8-5 lead in the ninth, not to mention a 20-game lead in the standings, when Roberts decided to bring in Jansen to shut the door -- which he did by striking out the side.

When an outside writer asked him after the game about the wisdom of such a move, Roberts politely explained his reasoning -- his bullpen was taxed and Jansen is, after all, his closer.

Then, after the writer left, Roberts looked at the beat reporters and said, "What the hell was that question?"

The next night, the crowd of 19,859, as well as the people in the press box and both dugouts, sat mesmerized as Hill skillfully worked his way through the Pirate order. He lost a perfect game on an error in the ninth, but he still had a no-hitter as the 0-0 game went into extra innings. Roberts decided to leave him in because his pitch count was still low and a fairy tale was within reach.

But then Josh Harrison led off the 10th with a home run just over the leaping Granderson in left. Everyone in the park was still in a state of disbelief as Hill walked off the field and into the dugout. There was Roberts waiting for him at the bottom of the steps, to tell him how proud he was of him.

"That's my job," he said later. "To be there for them."

The next afternoon, on getaway day, the Dodgers beat the Pirates 5-2. Granderson got things started with a solo blast beyond right field that plopped into the Allegheny, downriver from the Clemente Bridge. It seemed kind of fitting since Granderson was the 2016 winner of baseball's Roberto Clemente Award.

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt. -- The Dodger Way, quoting from William Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure."

Rivers take all sorts or twists and turns, and they tend to pick up momentum. Just as the Allegheny becomes the Ohio, which becomes the Mississippi, there was no stopping the flow of Dodger losses in September.

After returning home from Pittsburgh, the Dodgers won the opener of a series with the Brewers, then proceeded to drop 16 of their next 17 games -- their worst 17-game stretch since 1944, when Campanis was a chief petty officer in the Navy.

As the streak grew longer, the anxiety built, and the Los Angeles Times had to ask, "How Did The Dodgers Go From Possibly The Best Of All Time To, Right Now, The Worst Team In The Majors?" But Roberts remained calm -- too calm, thought some of the faithful. Say something. Do something. Throw something.

First-base coach George Lombard, who has known Roberts since their minor league days, says, "That would not have been Doc. Look, it wasn't his fault we were losing. And it wasn't as if the players weren't trying hard. Trying too hard is more like it. What good would it have done if he had yelled?"

Even Tricia was amazed at his positive calm. "I kept waiting for him to waver," she says, "but he never did. Being down or negative is not who he is as a person. It's one of the things I admire most about him."

That, too, is the Dodger Way. Back in 1954, Campanis wrote, "It is a Dodger policy not to criticize a player on the day that a game is lost." (And besides, the Dodgers were still comfortably in front despite the bad stretch and headed toward 100 victories.)

So Roberts smiled as the team tried a variety of slump-busters: Darvish threw salt in the dugout, and the clubhouse attendants took the places of the bat boys. As a former member of the Indians, Roberts welcomed the presence of Jobu, the voodoo doll from "Major League," in the bat rack.

After they finally snapped the 11-game losing streak with a 5-3 victory over the host Giants on Sept. 12, Aurilia texted Roberts: "That's over. Now start playing like it's the postseason." Doc texted back: "Good advice, buddy."

The Dodgers then went on a four-game winning streak that included taking the first two games of their three-game set in Washington -- a possible precursor to an NLCS matchup.

A week later, back at home on Sept. 22, the Dodgers celebrated Tommy Lasorda's 90th birthday before the game, and then went out and beat the Giants 4-2 to clinch the NL West title. But not before Tricia won a race of her own: "Emme's 13th birthday party finished in San Diego at 8:30 p.m., and we jumped in the car and made it to L.A. in time for the celebration. It was funny how that night went from 12 girls in poodle skirts for a 1950s party to Emme hopping around in the clubhouse, covered in champagne."

Also in the middle of the celebration, wearing protective goggles, was Lasorda, who played with Jackie Robinson in '54 and managed the franchise to its last World Series in '88. Asked if this might be the year, he said, "I feel like that every year."

Lasorda and Roberts know better. For all the talk of destiny, there's no sense in getting carried away. "We have a lot of work to do," Roberts said afterward. "This is only the beginning."

But if they do go all the way, they can take pride that they did it the Dodger Way.

They kept it in the family.