"Hey! Dad? Want to have a catch?"
- Kevin Costner in the movie, "Field of Dreams"
He is the son of former UNC-Chapel Hill baseball coach Mike Roberts, and so Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts indeed knows what it's like to "have a catch" with his dad.
That those boyhood days in Durham led to Roberts' career in the big leagues made Sunday's Father's Day hosting of the Pirates amid perfect weather at Oriole Park all the more special for the Birds' star. A fact punctuated with an exclamation point by his two-run home run in the the ninth that tied the game at 4.
"He's a great friend," Roberts said of his father, following a 5-4 loss in 10 innings. "I miss him being here but I hope he was watching."
No doubt his father, currently residing in Cape Cod, is following the progress of his son, who ranks among the American League leaders in seven categories. Roberts leads the AL in triples (5), and the fact that he is also second in doubles (23) and tied for fourth in stolen bases (19) and extra-base hits (32) has led to his nickname, "Flyin' Brian."
The leadoff man in the O's lineup, Roberts serves as the ignition switch for a squad batting .303 this month with 16 home runs and 74 runs scored in its last 13 games. Last season, he pilfered a career-best 50 bases to tie for the league lead and led the majors with 19 steals of third.
"Flyin' Brian" indeed. Yet Roberts has also felt ground-bound in recent years by injuries and off-the-field tribulations. In Sept. 2005, while en route to being named "Most Valuable Oriole," he suffered a season-ending dislocated left elbow, torn tendon and torn ulnar collateral ligament following a collision with the Yankees' Bubba Crosby while covering first base.
He endured an even more damaging blow when he was cited for steroid usage in the infamous Mitchell Report. The accusation prompted public outrage by Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who believed Roberts to be a near-perfect professional because of his play on the field and charitable work for children.
Confronted with the issue, however, the man who has been the face of the franchise since Cal Ripken's retirement in 2001 admitted that he had used steroids on two occasions in 2003.
His once stainless reputation tarnished, Roberts suffered the expected verbal abuse by opposing fans. He attempted to shrug it off -"That's the nature of our business," he said - but found himself struggling with a host of other issues. Namely, speculation by critics that he wouldn't recover from his elbow injury; persistent rumors that he would be traded; and most recently, the sudden departure of close friend Jay Gibbons, who was released by the Birds before the start of this season.
Visitors to Roberts' clubhouse stall will see posted in plain sight a pair of Scripture passages - "Let each of you regard one another as more important than himself," and "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit but with humility of mind."
He has dealt with his injuries and distractions, his insecurities and doubts, by being a man of faith. O's skipper Dave Trembley sees Roberts' reliance on Scripture as a source of strength, and said that despite stardom and immense wealth - Roberts' salary this season is $6.3 million - he realizes his purpose in life goes beyond baseball.
Call it a sign of maturity from a guy whose boyish face belies the fact he will turn 31 in October. The child has become a man, the dreams of his youth realized.
Roberts honored his dad with his play on this Father's Day. He fielded his position flawlessly (three putouts, five assists) and four times short-circuited Pirate rallies. That he broke an 0-for-4 skein with a game-tying homer in the ninth revealed a professional hitter's approach.
"It's a tough game," teammate Jay Payton said. "You can't take your last at-bat into your next one. Brian's been around, he knows that."
He knows, too, about making comebacks, personal as well as professional. No doubt something else learned long ago, during those boyhood games of catch with his dad.