Brian Roberts  
 


For all the tales of the little guy making it big in pro sports, no one has a more heart-wrenching saga than Brian Roberts. We mean that literally. As a child, Brian suffered from an ailment to his ticker, which jeopardized his life and stunted his growth permanently. But it never lessened his love of baseball. Just the opposite, Brian's passion for the sport increased, as did his will to become a star. Today, few big-league leadoff hitters stand as tall as he does. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Brian Michael Roberts was born October 9, 1977, in Durham, North Carolina. His parents, Nancy and Mike, already had one child, Angie. Mike was a baseball man through and through. He had caught in the Kansas City Royals system for a few years before turning to coaching. Mike’s father had also been a coach, in Tennessee. One day when Brian was two, he found his dad’s old catching gear and was fascinated by it. No one was surprised that that the kid was a ballplayer at heart. Ironically, however, it was his ticker that threatened to keep him from enjoying the game.

When Brian was nine-months-old, doctors discovered a hole in his heart. Told there was a chance it would close on its own, his parents decided to do nothing and wait. By the age of five, however, it had expanded to the size of a quarter. The slightest activity—and Brian was an active kid—left him gasping for air. An operation was performed to fix the problem, but this caused his growth to be stunted. It was frustrating for Brian when his friends began sprouting up and he remained the “little guy” whose hits rarely trickled past the infield dirt.


 
 

Brian's dad was a forward-thinking and sometimes eccentric baseball coach who led the UNC Tar Heels from 1978 through 1998. Brian spent a lot of time hanging around college baseball diamonds and getting to know future big leaguers like B.J. Surhoff—who actually babysat him a couple of times. Surhoff would later be one of Brian’s teammates on the Baltimore Orioles.

With his medical problems behind him, Brian focused on baseball. His dad saw early on that he had the hand-eye skills to become a switch-hitter. In their backyard games, he would make his son jump across the plate on alternating pitches. Some of the Carolina players gave Brian pointers, too. Pitcher Scott Bankhead, a member of the powerhouse 1984 U.S. Olympic squad, was particularly helpful.

Brian and his dad played catch every day. It’s what they miss most now. Mike was always checking to see that Brian was doing the little things right. For example, he painted the ball half black to make sure the rotation was correct on his son's throws.

Brian eventually developed into a fine player, and made the varsity at Chapel Hill High. But baseball at times seemed like a job. Between school, home and his workouts and weekend road trips with the Tar Heels, he was getting burned out. Unsure that the sport was leading him anywhere, Brian thought about quitting prior to his junior season. What made him stick with it was his love of practice and the belief that he was making himself better each day. It was hard to imagine life without that feeling.

After his junior season, Brian decided to go away for a couple of months and play ball in Ohio. It was nice to see new faces, and better competition. Among the college-bound stars he befriended was Pat Burrell. Brian returned home determined to make an impact on the next level—wherever that happened to be.


B.J. Surhoff, 1987 Leaf

 

 
 

Despite a good senior year for the Tigers, Brian was not drafted, and there were no overwhelming scholarship offers. He decided it would be fun to play for his dad at UNC, and he made the team as a freshman shortstop in 1997. No one—Brian included—had visions of his rising beyond the ACC level as a player, but that began to change a couple of weeks into the season. Seton Hall came down to Chapel Hill and put Jason Grilli on the mound. There were 50 scouts in the stands to watch the big fireballing righty, who would be taken fourth in that June’s draft. In Brian’s first at-bat, Grilli tried to jam him. He caught the pitch on the fat part of the bat, and lined the ball over the fence for a home run. In his next at-bat, Grilli attempted the same thing—with the same result, a second home run.

Brian ended up hitting .427 and was named NCAA Freshman of the Year. With his proud (and slightly amazed) papa looking on from the dugout, he set new school records for hits, doubles and steals.

ON THE RISE

Brian cemented his place as one of the top players in the ACC as a sophomore, hitting .353 with an NCAA-best 63 steals for the 24th ranked Tar Heels. He was invited to join Team USA over the break. Competing for a younger-than-usual squad, he batted just .222 in international play, as the Americans suffered through a rough summer.

While Brian was away, he learned that his father had been forced to resign as Tar Heel coach. Brian immediately transferred to South Carolina for his junior year in 1999. There, batted .353 for the second straight season and topped the nation again with 67 steals. He was selected a second-team All-American and was named the country’s best defensive player by Baseball America. More importantly, he caught the eye of Baltimore scouting director Tony DeMacio, who believed Brian was worth a high pick.

When Brian chose to forego his senior season with the Gamecocks and enter the draft, the Orioles took him as a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds. The club had received this selection as compensation for losing Rafael Palmeiro via free agency to the Texas Rangers.

Brian was assigned to Delmarva of the Class-A South Atlantic League, where he joined fellow prospect Larry Bigbie under manager Butch Davis. The 22-year old batted .240 and swiped 17 bags in 47 games as the team’s regular shortstop. His first pro season was an eye-opener. Used to hitting in the heart of the order and whipping an aluminum bat at balls all over the strike zone, he now had to contend with the demands of batting leadoff, the extra heft of wood, and pitchers who could blow the ball past him above the belt. In the stands that first week was Brian's dad, videocam in hand. The two would sit down after each game, review his at-bats, and discuss where adjustments needed to be made. When Mike felt his son had a handle on this higher level of competition, he left him to fend for himself.


Pat Burrell, 2002 Topps Heritage
 
 

In 2000, Brian was promoted to Frederick of the Carolina League, but missed almost half the year with a nagging elbow injury. During that time he met Jerry Hairston, Jr., Baltimore’s “second baseman of the future.” (He already had 50 games in the show). Hairston—whose father played in the majors with the Chicago White Sox—was in Frederick only briefly, but he and Brian shared an interest in religion, and made Scottsdale their off-season home. They became fast friends.

After finishing the year hitting over .300 in limited action, Brian started the 2001 campaign at Class-AA Bowie. Back to full health, he performed well over the season's first month, batting .296 and swiping 10 bases in April. The Orioles, thinkg they were looking at a table-setting utility infielder, promoted him to Class-AAA Rochester. There Brian added 23 more stolen bases to his stats before a call-up to the big club in June, after shortstop Mike Bordick went on the DL.

That call came at 2 a.m. Brian jumped on the next plane and went right from the airport to the locker room, where Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove told him to suit up . He would bat second and play shortstop that evening. Brian trotted out to his position, trying to stay cool. When he looked to his right and saw Cal Ripken standing at third, he says he “almost wet himself.”

With the Orioles on their way to 98 losses and Bordick hurt seriously, Brian saw the bulk of the playing time at short the rest of the way. He started like a house afire, hitting in 34 of his first 41 games. He also formed a slick DP combo with his pal Hairston. Though Brian tailed off down the stretch, his final numbers were solid: .253, 42 runs, 17 extra-base hits and a dozen steals in just 75 games.

From what the team could see, Brian had the makings of a respectable major-league leadoff hitter. He was not afraid to work deep into counts, and he would let a 2-0 fastball go by without a second thought. He kept the ball on the ground so he could use his speed, and his compact swing produced decent gap power. Brian’s biggest obstacles were his size, and his tendency to press. He had to learn how to let his talent flow.

This would not be easy in the Baltimore organization. After the season, the team decided Brian would not be able to handle the job of an everyday shortstop, switched him to second base, and sent him to the Arizona Fall League to learn the position. This put him in direct competition with Hairston, who was coming off a good season as the starter. As a consequence, Brian was on the Baltimore-Rochester yo-yo most of the 2002 season. When Hairston struggled early, he got a decent amount of action before Hargrove reshuffled the deck and sent him back down. In his final stint with the O’s, Brian was limited to pinch-running and defensive duties. That winter, he went to Puerto Rico and finished third in the league with a .322 average for Ponce. The O's told he would get a shot at winning the starting second job in 2003.

Though Hairston had improved his play in '02, the Orioles didn't feel there was anything wrong with some healthy competition, especially on a 67-win team. The two friends battled it out in spring training. When Brian failed to hit, he was shipped back to Triple-A, with Baltimore's new affiliate Ottawa. Back with the O's, Hairston got off to a red-hot start and was leading the league in stolen bases, but he broke his foot seven weeks into the schedule.


Jerry Hairston, Jr., 2004 Topps
 
 

Brian was recalled in late May. In his second game, he slugged a game-winning grand slam off Troy Percival. He started 112 of the final 119 games for the O’s, batting,.270 with a team-high 23 steals in 29 attempts. These post-Ripken Orioles were a sorry club, however, with Jay Gibbons and Melvin Mora the only guys in the lineup with decent sticks. The team managed just 71 wins, and Hargrove was replaced by Lee Mazzilli—a Joe Torre disciple—after the season.

Over the winter, as Brian worked out with Hairston, they swapped the trade rumors they heard involving each of them, trying to figure out who would be dealt and who would remain an Oriole. But when camp opened they were both wearing orange and black again, fighting for the same job again.

MAKING HIS MARK

In Baltimore's first spring training game of 2004, Hairston broke a finger on a head-first slide, and Brian got the nod—at least until Hairston came off the DL. By the time that happened, Brian was off to a solid start. He was reaching base consistently, disrupting opposing pitchers with his speed and making all the plays in the field. When Hairston returned in May, Brian was ensconced at second, which left his friend looking for time in the outfield and at DH. With Brian leading off and Hairston hitting ninth, the O's now had speedsters at the top and bottom of the order. This pleased the heart of the lineup—which included newcomers Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, Mora, Gibbons and Miguel Tejada. The more Brian and his buddy got on base, the more fastballs these sluggers would see. Tejada finished the year with a remarkable 150 RBIs.

Despite this newfound chemistry, there were still some lingering thoughts about moving Hairston back to the infield. But when he landed back on the DL with a broken ankle in August, Brian’s future as the Oriole second sacker was finally secure. More relaxed, he didn't feel compelled to grind through each at-bat. When he saw something good, he swung at it. And the ball began jumping off his bat. The Orioles, meanwhile, were playing respectable baseball, hovering right around .500.

In a game against the Yankees, Derek Jeter walked over to him after he had doubled and told Brian that he could hit .320 if he kept attacking the ball. Brian took the New York captain's advice and finished '04 with a flourish, batting close to .300 in the second half. His final numbers—273, 107 runs, 71 walks, and 29 stolen bases—were a revelation for the O's. He also led the AL with 50 doubles. The last Oriole to top the league in this cateogry was Ripken in 1983.

Brian’s performance was good enough for the Orioles to finally trade Hairston. The off-season deal sent him to the Chicago Cubs for Sammy Sosa. For the first time in his career, Brian entered the season penciled in as Baltimore's everyday second baseman.

The 2005 Orioles were one of the most intriguing teams in the AL East. With the addition of Sosa, the O’s had a power-packed lineup that could slug it out with anyone. The pitching, by contrast, was shaky after a fruitless winter shopping the free agent market. Still, there were some quality arms in the rotation, and B.J. Ryan had the stuff to be a dominant closer. As April and May unfolded, the hitters did what they were supposed to and the pitchers did what many said they couldn’t—enabling the Orioles to surge to the top of the standings.


Brian Roberts, 2003 Donruss Classic
 
 

The talk of the town in the first half was not Palmeiro, Sosa or Tejada, but Brian. He hit .379 in April with three doubles, three triples, 10 steals, 21 runs and 26 RBIs. Brian got good wood on the ball almost every trip to the plate, and the closer the game the better he hit. He was among the leaders in total bases, extra-base hits and slugging. And a mere 11 games into the new season, he matched his career high for home runs—this from a man who had the AL’s sixth-poorest at-bat per home run mark (160.3) in 2004.

The Orioles had not had this type of hitter at the top of their lineup since Brady Anderson, around whom swirled rumors of steroid abuse for many years. So naturally, when Brian came to New York for an April series, the Daily News ran a sensational story on its back page about how he was “Powered by Creatine.” Brian, who had been using Creatine the muscle-building supplement (which is legal) for three years in his winter workouts, had the perfect reaction—if Creatine’s so great how come I didn’t hit 30 homers last year? Sports Illustrated had its own theory about what turned Brian from lightweight to slugger: his new amber-tinted contact lenses. Brian admitted seeing the ball a little better, but complained the lenses made him “look like Satan.”

Baseball fans, meanwhile, adopted him as one of the game's new darlings. In July in Detroit, Brian trotted out as the AL's starting second baseman. He collected one hit, a double, in two at-bats and scored a run.


Brian Roberts, 2005 Prestige
 
  By mid-season, the home runs had subsided, but the lusty hitting had not. Brian was still among the AL leaders in a number of categories, and was on pace to obliterate every one of his personal marks. He was also within range of having that rarest of years, a .300 (avg.)—.400 (obp) —.500 (slg.) campaign, despite battling a sore shoulder most of the way. More important, Baltimore had a winning record for the first time since 1997.

 
  With an All-Star leadoff man igniting a powerful offense, the Orioles have taken a huge first step toward reclaiming their past glory. A few more arms and—who knows?—the Yankees and Red Sox may have a problem on their hands in the East. Is 2005 Brian’s career year? Well, it's hard to imagine him having a bigger season. But then, people have always underestimated what he can do. At least the Orioles finally know what a special little player they have.

 
  BRIAN THE PLAYER

 
 

Brian has a quick and compact swing that enables him to hit the ball with authority to all fields—and, as of 2005—over the fences. He has learned how to think along with the pitchers, attacking balls early in the count from the hard throwers, or waiting out the nibblers for a walk. Brian has also stopped chasing pitcher’s pitches, an encouraging sign for a leadoff man.

Brian is solid in the field on grounders and double plays. All those catches with his dad have paid off—he is one of the most accurate throwers among second basemen.

Brian is one of the fastest players on the Orioles, but still swipes bases mostly on raw speed. With experience will come knowledge of the pitchers and their moves, so it is likely that he will reach the 30 to 50 plateau in steals as long as he stays healthy.

For many fans, Brian is the definition of a scrappy ballplayer. He is also the kind of teammate who can fire up those around him. Winning in Baltimore continues to be a tall order because of lousy pitching. Brian, at least, is helping fill the stands as the catalyst of a dangerous offensive club.


Brian Roberts, 2001 Donruss
 
 

Brian Roberts

 
   
 

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