Monday, May 23, 2005
Updated: April 15, 11:36 AM ET
By Jeff Bradley
This would be a good time to lie. A great time, in fact, to tell you that I knew Brian Roberts was headed for stardom 26 years ago, when I saw him in diapers hitting Wiffle balls in the basement of his parents' house. From both sides of the plate, no less. Yeah, I could spin a good one, talk about how I saw him taking infield with a college team at the age of 6. Saw him sweating through workouts in 100° heat, participating in soft-toss and BP alongside those college players, when he was 7. And how I saw this kid as a can't-miss prodigy who would one day, as a 27-year-old, switchhitting second baseman and leadoff man for the Baltimore Orioles, be the talk of baseball.
But I can't lie.
The truth is, I saw Brian do all those things when he was a little boy, dating back to the spring of 1979, when he wasn't even 2. But there was no way I thought he'd be anything more than a kid who was pushed too hard, too soon by his dad, Mike Roberts, who was the baseball coach at North Carolina then.
And as I sit down to lunch with Brian on a sunny but cool late-April afternoon in Boston's Back Bay, I tell him as much. "I figured you'd hate baseball by the time you were in high school," I say. "I remember one day, it must've been 110° out, and you went up to your father and asked, 'Daddy, can I have a quarter for a NuGrape soda?' And he said, 'You take 50 more swings off the tee and I'll give you a quarter, Brian.' " He looks across the table, smiles and says, "I loved NuGrape." And baseball? "For the most part," Brian says. "My dad was strict just like his dad was strict. He pushed me hard, and I had my moments, mostly as a teenager, when I thought I knew more than him and wanted to rebel. But for the most part, I loved playing and practicing baseball."
I reminisce about my days at Carolina, even though Brian has no recollection of me. He knows me only because my big brother, Scott Bradley, was the first Tar Heels recruit his dad got to the big leagues. I was in the same class--just not the same class--as Brian's current teammate B.J. Surhoff and former major league shortstop Walt Weiss. I tell Brian that, like him, I was a switchhitting middle infielder. But unlike him, I stunk. "Your dad was nice just to let me practice," I say.
I want Brian to know that I liked his old man. I want him to know this because, well, Coach Roberts was not a popular guy. Even though he won a lot of games, his reputation in Chapel Hill, in the ACC and around college baseball was, basically, that he was a crackpot. Coach Roberts was known to everyone as Five, which was his uniform number, though I don't remember anyone ever calling him that to his face.
I think Five rubbed people the wrong way because he gave off this vibe that he was trying to reinvent the game. He had a new pickoff play for every day of the week. He loved coming up with variations on the old hidden-ball trick. He would attempt steals of home at any time, even if his best hitter was at the plate with the count in his favor. He once tried, with Michigan's Jim Abbott on the mound, to have a player steal home when the catcher threw the ball back to the pitcher. Abbott threw the runner out at the plate by 30 feet, and Roberts' own players quietly cheered. Many years later, I asked Abbott about the play and he said, simply, "Did he really think I got all the way to Michigan without a team ever trying to pull that play on me? Please."
So, yeah, Five was a bit of a nut. But I liked him anyway. He was sort of like a wacky big brother to me. After he discovered my brother in New Jersey, he made frequent trips north to look for players. He'd show up at our house unannounced. I'd wake up some mornings to find him eating cereal at our kitchen table. He'd go off and watch prep games, then come back and throw BP and hit ground balls to me. When I was a high school sophomore, he promised me a chance to play at North Carolina. He kept that promise, even when it was apparent that I wasn't very good.
I was unaware of Five's reputation until I got to Chapel Hill, but it didn't take long to see why his peers disliked him. Let's just say he had Steve Spurrier body language. When one of his plays (a hit-and-run, a bunt-and-run, a fake-bunt slash-and-run) didn't work, he'd stomp around the third base coach's box, shaking his head. In a league full of old-cuss coaches, Five was the head man at UNC at 27 and had boundless energy. He'd throw BP for hours, hit fungoes and stay until every player was satisfied with his workout. He loved to do two things above all: recruit and teach hitting. But those two passions did not always coexist. It just seemed odd the way Five would sign a player, tell people during the kid's senior year of high school he was so good he would be starting for Carolina right now, and then, as soon as the kid was a Tar Heel, start tinkering with his mechanics.
This is part of the reason I gave Brian Roberts no chance. Sure the kid was cute, taking bus trips with the Heels, dressing in a little uni, always ready to play catch with one of the guys. But there were so many things working against him. For one thing, Brian was a flea, and his mom and dad were small too. You just knew the kid was going to be 5'8", tops. There was also the surgery Brian underwent at age 5 to fix a quarter-size hole in his heart.
"That's my first memory of Brian," says Surhoff. "I remember thinking how scary it must have been for that little boy to go under the knife." When we saw the Y-shaped scar across Brian's chest, no one was thinking about his baseball future. Except Five, who wasted no time getting his little guy back onto the field. "Drive that ball! Throw that top hand out there! Not that way. This way!" Imagine listening to that every day for four years, much less 18. He'd play in high school. Maybe not even that long. That was my prediction.
The years passed, and from time to time I'd ask people how Brian Roberts was doing. I remember hearing how Five had taken Brian and some of his Little League friends to Japan for a tour. That's Five, I thought, pushing the kid along. Is he still tiny? Yeah, still tiny. A few years later, when I heard Brian was going to play for his dad at UNC and that no other Division I school had offered him anything, I could almost hear the rival ACC coaches snickering. It had probably been 10 years since I'd seen Brian play ball, but I worried for the kid. I figured Five had overrated his own son.
"I really wanted to go away to college," Brian says. Then, after a pause, he continues, "That's not really true. I mean, I grew up at Carolina, lived and died with all my dad's teams and dreamed of playing for the Tar Heels. But I think what I really wanted more than anything was for someone other than my dad to think I was good."
Just how good did Five think he was? "He told me before my freshman season that my goals at Carolina should be to play for the U.S. at the world championships and to be a first-round draft pick," Brian says, shaking his head and looking down. "Even I thought he was crazy then."
It's clear Brian is fully aware of his dad's overthe-top rep. "He always threw hard BP to me because he wanted me to develop bat speed. Threw it hard and threw it inside and told me to pull it. We long-tossed every day to build my arm strength. He sent me to the track coach at Carolina to work on my running technique.
"I'll never forget when I was in middle school, our field was terrible. So one day I'm in class, and I look out the window, and I see my family's station wagon driving around the infield. My dad had taken the drag from the stadium at Carolina and hooked it up to the station wagon. He was dragging the infield! It was embarrassing. But the thing people don't understand about my dad is that he was doing that for all the kids, not just for me. My dad wanted to help everyone get better."
Suddenly I'm humbled, thinking of all the BP Five threw to me and my brother, all the grounders he hit to me. I was living proof Five would work with anyone. But still, he had to be wrong about Brian, his 5'9" son, who became the Tar Heels' starting shortstop as a freshman in 1997. Five was now telling my brother, who was soon to become the coach at Princeton, that Brian was going to be a high draft pick and, he thought, a "better than average" big league player. My brother called one of his Carolina teammates, Roy Clark, who's now the scouting director for the Braves, to share this "Five is crazy" story, but he didn't get the response he expected. "I think," Clark said to my brother, "Five's right this time. Brian can flat-out play."
As a freshman, he rewrote the Tar Heels' record book, hitting .427 with 102 hits, 24 doubles and 47 stolen bases. He was named national Freshman of the Year. He crossed one of his dad's goals for him off the list when he was named to the U.S. team that toured the world in the summer of '97. But when he returned from the world championships in Spain, his dad picked him up at the airport and told him, "Brian, I've been fired. They're giving me one more year to coach, and then I'm gone."
After 21 years, four ACC titles and two trips to the College World Series, Five's rep had finally done him in. "There are a lot of us who are grateful for what Coach Roberts did for us," Surhoff says. "And there are, I guess, a lot who are not grateful."
Amazingly, in the wake of that record-setting freshman season, Brian says he heard players were grumbling that the coach's son got preferential treatment. I notice Brian's brown eyes glistening a bit. "My dad would've thrown BP at midnight to a walk-on if the kid asked," he says. "My dad put his whole life into that program."
Five and Brian would go out together in 1998, as the Heels came within one game of the College World Series. Brian hit .353 with 13 homers and 49 RBIs and led college baseball with 63 steals. He was a first-team All-America, and the first Carolina player to win ACC Player of the Year since my brother did it back in 1980. After that, Brian declared he would transfer to South Carolina.
"How could I play any more on my dad's field?" he asks. "How could I walk into what had been my dad's office my whole life and have it not be his office?" At South Carolina, in '99, Brian had another All-America season, hitting .353 with 12 homers and leading the nation with 67 steals. In June, the Orioles made him a first-round pick. Five was right again. "I thought Brian could do it because he could run and throw," Coach Roberts told me one day this spring when we caught up. Coach is now working toward a doctorate in sports administration at New Mexico. He'll manage the Cotuit Kettleers this summer in the Cape Cod League, and he has his application in for several Division III jobs. "I'd seen two of our players, Chris Pittaro and Walt Weiss, make it to the big leagues because of those tools. And I saw similar qualities in Brian."
Five hardly sounds like a crackpot to me now. "He needs to coach again," Brian says, and I have to agree. The thought of Coach not having BP to throw, fungoes to hit, swings to tinker with and trick plays to teach is hard to imagine. I also wonder if he uses all his energy up on Brian. "Oh, no," Brian says. "When I got to the big leagues, I said to him, 'Dad, you got me here. But you've done everything you can do. Now it's time for you to relax and watch me play, and for me to listen to some other coaches. Everything you taught me, I promise, is engraved in my brain.' " And now Brian laughs. "In the minors, I'd go 0-for-4, and he'd call me up to tell me what I was doing wrong. I'd say, 'Dad, how do you know? You're not even here!' I will say this, though: as much as others did not believe in me, as much as I didn't believe in myself at times, he always believed in me."
Brian no longer needs his dad to dangle a NuGrape to get him to do extra work. Every offseason since the end of 2002, he's lived in Scottsdale, where he works out with the Athletes' Performance group. A typical day includes a twohour flexibility workout in the morning, a twohour baseball workout—BP, throwing and ground balls—in the afternoon, followed by a two-hour strength-training session. "Pound for pound, he's the strongest guy on our team," says O's outfielder Jay Gibbons, Brian's next-door neighbor and workout partner.
The irony is irresistible: at the dawn of the Serious Steroid-Testing Era, a little leadoff man who hit four homers in 2004 bashes eight in April. This season Brian has been asked about creatine (he uses it in the winter to aid in recovery from weight training), his space-age contact lenses (he wore them in three of the Orioles' first 23 games) and Brady Anderson (the leadoff man who jacked 50 for the Orioles in 1996, more than twice as many homers as he had in any other season). "Hilarious," says Roberts. "I'm as shocked as anyone, but I promise you, there's no magic potion."
As we finish lunch, Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar spots us from across the room. He comes over to our table and asks me, "What does the AL MVP have to say?"
"He says he's going 40/40," I respond. Millar raises his eyebrows.
This time, I lied.