Let W. Roberts talk the talk as long as he walks the walk

July 01, 2002|By Mike Preston

WHAT YOU TALKING about, Willis?

Just about everything when the Orioles setup man is on the mound. Willis Roberts talks to himself and uses sign language that has perturbed manager Mike Hargrove. Roberts is another one of those demonstrative pitchers like Jose Lima and Antonio Osuna.

Did you see Osuna's reaction Saturday night when he struck out Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa to end the game? Roberts has his own moves, the pumped fist and the double pats on the chest. Yesterday, he introduced the crouch with three pumped fists and later the double tap on the chest and then pointing to the heavens.

It annoys opposing hitters as well as Hargrove, who is from the old school of never taunt, never show anyone up.

But I like Roberts' passion. It's not about disrespect. It was part of the game that he grew up with in his native Dominican Republic. So if he wants to beat on his chest a little like King Kong after he smokes Rondell White on a fastball, go for it. And if he wants to posture a little like Hulk Hogan after picking off a runner at first base, no problem.

He had just better win. That's what it's all about. Just win, baby.

Major League Baseball likes to pride itself for having players from different cultures, and Roberts comes from the land that has a few demonstrative pitchers.

"A couple of guys do it," said Roberts. "It's me. I don't want to change for nothing. I don't care what the hitters think about me. I will continue to do my job. When I do it, I don't think about what I am going to do. I don't say, `If I strike out this guy, I got to be emotional.' Sometimes I don't do it and still pitch well.

"I remember the first time in spring training we [Hargrove and Roberts] talked about it," said Roberts. "He say, `Why you do that?' and I tell him it's just me. He say, `What if the guy hits a home run off you next time?' I say, `Then I'll strike him out again.' I don't want anybody to hit the ball off me, not even a ground ball, not even a pop-up. I want to strike the guy out."

I like the attitude. I like the aggressiveness. That's what you get in pro football, but not baseball. There is nothing wrong with emotion and intensity. When you go into a Ravens locker room after a game, there is blood, sweat, a stench and mentally fatigued players. You get a coach whose hair is wet and matted to his head.

Baseball purists say it is impossible for players to match that emotional level for a 162-game schedule, but they push it away at times, like the Orioles' game against the Yankees on Wednesday night.

It was so Baltimore. Hot and humid. The young, underdog Orioles against the veteran, big-salaried Yankees. Both New York and Baltimore fans, sweating profusely, were talking trash to each other throughout as the Yankees took the lead three times, only to eventually lose to the Orioles.

Roberts pitched two scoreless innings that night, escaping jams twice. He once threw a fastball for a strike that hit catcher Geronimo Gil's mitt so hard that the sound echoed throughout Camden Yards. He pumped his fist, and I was feeling the passion.

And when he got out of his second jam and pounded on his chest, most of the Orioles fans felt that passion, too.

"It's hard to watch. We've addressed it a number of times," said Hargrove of Roberts' antics on Wednesday night.

Hard to watch?

It was great stuff. You can understand Hargrove's concern if Roberts were a closer or a starter, and he was going "Pyscho" Sidney Ponson crazy, like Ponson has done in the past when he has lost his composure and control during games. But Roberts has pitched well as a setup guy.

Plus, this is a team that needs some personalities to emerge. They don't have the Big Jr. around anymore (that tells you something about baseball when the sport's top nickname is Junior). This is a bland team. The Orioles are young, aggressive, fun to watch and have a never-say-die attitude, but fans still need to get to know this team.

Roberts is a player we might want to get to know.

He entered in the seventh yesterday after a double to left-center by Bobby Abreu. His first pitch to Pat Burrell was an 84-mph slider for a strike. His second pitch was a 94-mph fastball. Strike two. His third was a split-fingered fastball at 88. Goodbye, Burrell. Jason Michaels singled up the middle to score Abreu, but Roberts later picked him off first. Roberts struck out Scott Rolen to end the inning, and then he crouched and pumped his first three times. Beautiful.

"The pumped fist usually means it's good," said Roberts. "The pat on the chest means it's all me. It doesn't matter what the hitter did or what the umpire called, it was all me."

Roberts pitched two innings, allowed three hits, one earned run, a walk and struck out two. Every time he made a big pitch, he celebrated. Of course, it annoyed the Phillies. When Philadelphia pitcher Carlos Silva struck out Gary Matthews Jr. (another Jr.) in the bottom of the eighth to end the inning, Silva hopped three times before he went to the dugout.

That's going to happen. There will be some other retaliation, but there is only so much that can be done. Roberts doesn't have to bat. What are opposing pitchers going to do, try to hit him harder? If it aggravates them, so what? Maybe that helps Roberts.

But when he is emotional, he is pitching well. Before yesterday, he had not allowed an earned run in 21 of his past 26 games, posting a 1.02 ERA.

That's not too shabby. In this situation, the Orioles should let him continue to be himself.

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