This has been a distressing week, and I’m not talking about the Angels’ struggles to score runs and stop clubs from abusing their pitching staff.
Two giants of the game, Ernie Harwell and Robin Roberts, have passed away in the past two days. They lived a combined 175 years and made wonderful use of their time on the planet, enriching countless lives in countless ways. They were among the very best the sport had to offer.
Stunning news arrived earlier in the week in the form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma having invaded the body of Dave Roberts, who also has enriched the game in ways both small and large. Roberts, smart, intuitive, irrepressibly upbeat, is meeting this challenge head-on, committed to overcoming this obstacle and living a long, rich life, just as Harwell and Roberts did.
If there is any justice, Roberts will be alive into his 80s, making people laugh and feel good about themselves, like those two gentlemen.
I came to know “Doc,” as we called him, during the two seasons he played for the Padres and I covered them on a daily basis for MLB.com. He was what we call in the business a “go-to guy,” much like Torii Hunter is with the Angels. In hard times, when players are disinclined to talk about their team’s troubles and their own, there hopefully are those who can be counted on to offer insights no matter how dire the straits.
Dave Roberts, with the Padres and the other teams he graced, was one of those athletes, just as Hunter is a magnet for Angels beat writers.
In 2005, Roberts was coming off his triumph in Boston, when he stole a base against the Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series that triggered one of the greatest comebacks – and stories – in the game’s history. Roberts is a part of New England lore for his lore in exorcising those Bambino curses and ghost.
Coming home to San Diego, Roberts led off and played center field in 2005 for a club that made the postseason, getting swept by the Cardinals. He played the game with passion and intelligence. One thing nagged at him: his reputation for being fragile. We collaborated on several articles that knocked down this widely-held perception.
Athletes given to hurling themselves into the game, as Roberts did and Hunter does, put themselves in harm’s way. It has nothing to do with being injury-prone. It’s simply the by-product of playing full-tilt, with abandon.
In ’06, Roberts moved over to left to accommodate the arrival of Mike Cameron, a man Hunter considers one of the three premier defensive center fielders of the generation. In right was Brian Giles, completing a wonderfully productive outfield.
There was one horrific moment involving Roberts that season that seemed to characterize his career. Pursuing a fly ball at Angel Stadium, he rammed his right knee into the base of the fence in left field chasing what turned out to be an inside-the-park homer by Dallas McPherson.
“The only way for him to stop his momentum is to slide — and he smoked his knee good,” Giles said. “That’s the way Doc approaches it. Hopefully, it’s a bruised kneecap and he’ll be out a few days.”
Roberts — a star quarterback in high school who could have been a defensive back at UCLA but focused instead on baseball – soon was back in his leadoff role, creating havoc. He stole a career-high 49 bases in 55 attempts in ’06 and would have exceeded 50 if not for that incident in Anaheim. In 129 games, he scored 80 runs, another career best.
The Padres were a joy to cover. With Mike Piazza behind the plate, Adrian Gonzalez emerging at first base, Khalil Greene and Josh Barfield looking like future stars in the middle of the infield, and Jake Peavy, Chris Young and the great Trevor Hoffman anchoring the pitching staff, this was a good team, seemingly on the verge of even better things.
They won the NL West again, and the Cardinals took them out in four games in the NLDS on their way to a World Series triumph.
Doc moved on to San Francisco in 2007 and ended his career as a Giant – fittingly – in ’08. He did some broadcasting work for the Red Sox last year and was in Spring Training, getting in a uniform and teaching young Padres some tricks in his new role as a club executive, when Hodgkin’s surfaced. Treatments began, and he is telling people he’s optimistic he’ll beat it.
Not surprisingly, he kept working with those young Padres. Their totally unexpected start, bolting out of the gate this season under manager Bud Black, might not be a coincidence.
Good teams and things seem to follow Doc Roberts around. It could be all those good vibes he passes around, without even trying. They don’t make them any better than this guy. – Lyle Spencer