Becoming somebody

Brian Roberts: The Orioles' second baseman is experiencing a sudden surge in power - and celebrity status.

Baseball

April 29, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

BOSTON — ROBERTS ON TRACK

CURRENT PROJECTED

HITS - 32 247

HOMERS - 7 54

RBIs - 23 177

STEALS - 9 69

BOSTON - The reporters have been regularly crowding Brian Roberts' locker in the Orioles' clubhouse for weeks now, and the demands on his time have been constant.

But Roberts still didn't comprehend the impact he has had so far this season until he emerged from the visiting dugout at Fenway Park on Monday.

"I think when people start yelling at you and telling you how bad you are, that's when you know," said Roberts, who remembers his name and presence barely being acknowledged in Boston. "I've never been to a city, especially with the kind of guys we have in this locker room, where I was the one they are yelling at from the stands. I think it was Reggie Jackson who said, `They don't boo you if you're a nobody.' All of it has opened my eyes."

The Orioles have two members of the 500-home run club in Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro and one of the game's best players in Miguel Tejada. However, it is Roberts, the feisty leadoff man and the Orioles' surprising home run leader, who has been the talk of the baseball season.

Just ask his teammates. Approached by a reporter on Tuesday and asked about the second baseman, Jay Gibbons playfully sighed, then looked over at Palmeiro and said, "This is the fifth interview I've done about Brian today."

Before Wednesday's eventual rainout in Boston, Roberts joked: "I've had calls from several players from other teams, saying they are tired of seeing my face. They are telling me that the game is not this easy. We always kid each other, but I've just gotten it a little more than normal recently."

That's because Roberts, 27, has begun this season as the undisputed everyday second baseman for the Orioles, on a torrid pace. He had hits in his first 14 games and he enters today's series opener against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays hitting .368, the fourth-best average in the American League. He leads the AL in multi-hit games and total bases, is tied for the lead in runs and extra-base hits, is second in hits, stolen bases and triples and is third in RBIs.

Roberts had never hit more than five home runs in any of his previous four seasons with the Orioles (last year was his first full season in the big leagues), but he reached that mark on April 16, just 11 games into the season.

Insisting his power surge is a fluke, Roberts has seven home runs, one behind Alex Rodriguez for the AL lead. At 5 feet 9 and 178 pounds, he also leads the AL in slugging percentage, prompting Orioles pitcher Rodrigo Lopez to refer to him - not Sosa - recently as "our new slugger."

"I didn't really know about him before I came here, but now I know him," said Sosa, laughing. "He's incredible. He's swinging the bat so well. He's been getting the ball in the good part of the bat, right in the face. It doesn't matter how big you are, if you make good contact, the ball is going to jump."

Ton of factors

Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli has wondered aloud why Roberts' start has people so consumed. He has reminded reporters that Roberts, a career .264 hitter, had a club-record 50 doubles last season, breaking a 103-year-old AL record by a switch-hitter.

"The kid's got a lot of talent," Mazzilli said. "Sometimes, you get off to that good start and it just snowballs and your confidence level gets pretty high. He's been spectacular."

Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said he was surprised only by how many home runs Roberts hit early, but knows a lot of doubles can translate into a few more home runs pretty quickly.

Outside the Orioles' clubhouse, however, people have floated other theories. When the New York Yankees were at Camden Yards earlier this month, the New York Daily News ran a story with the headline, "Creatine powers Roberts." Creatine is a legal muscle-building supplement that Roberts has used the past three winters as part of his offseason conditioning program.

Roberts called the creatine story "comical," saying, "I can't figure out why I didn't hit 30 [homers] last year or the year before then."

In the current climate, the issue of steroids is also bound to arise. But as Roberts told USA Today this week, baseball's new testing program deflects even much of the possible kidding.

Another story attributed his possible improvement to new "performance-enhancing" contact lenses that are designed to block out glare. Roberts, though, said he has worn the contacts in only two of 21 games.

"It makes me laugh that it's always some bizarre reason why you are doing well," Roberts said. "It's not maturity, it's not getting better, it's not hard work. It's always some quick fix. That's fine. But I think there is a ton of contributing factors probably."

Confidence up

Those around Roberts suggest the biggest factor came on Feb. 2, when the Orioles traded second baseman Jerry Hairston, cash and three minor leaguers for Sosa. With his close friend Hairston around, Roberts never really knew if he was the Orioles' everyday second baseman.

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