FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The memories rushed back to Brian Roberts as he arrived at Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday. He remembered getting escorted into the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, holding his dislocated left elbow in place and worrying that his career might be over.
He recalled a time when he couldn't perform the most menial of tasks, like getting dressed in the morning. And then Roberts pondered some of the most punishing days, when the Orioles All-Star and one of the best defensive second basemen in the American League had to teach himself to catch a baseball again.
"I started literally with somebody standing in front of me, just tossing [the ball] underhanded to me," said Roberts, who didn't start catching again until about two months ago. "I was serious when I said that I felt like a 5-year-old kid again. I had to basically learn how to use my arm again."
After reporting to spring training yesterday, Roberts fully admitted that he is surprised by his own progress. The Orioles will open their 2006 season six weeks from now, and their leadoff hitter remains optimistic that he will join his teammates if not on April 3, then shortly thereafter.
"I don't have any doubts anymore," Roberts said on whether he can come back from the injury. "You have those times when you start doing things and you say, `I'll never do that as well as I used to.' But then you start doing it again. I know once I get on the field, I'll feel like the same player."
It was about five months ago, Sept. 30 to be exact, when Roberts underwent the ligament-reconstruction, more commonly known as Tommy John surgery, on his left elbow. Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the Cincinnati Reds team doctor who performed the procedure, said the surgery was more expansive than the standard Tommy John.
Kremchek not only had to fix the ligament, but he also had to repair the tendons and muscles on the inside of Roberts' elbow, a process that he said made the procedure and the rehab twice as difficult.
Roberts, 28, can look at the 6-inch scar on the elbow, or the scar under his right wrist, where a tendon was removed and put in his right elbow, without any reservation. But he still has not - and says he will not - watch tape of the play that brought a premature end to the finest season of his big league career.
During the second inning of the Orioles' 12-9 loss to the New York Yankees on Sept. 20, Roberts, covering first base on a bunt, reached toward the base line for B.J. Surhoff's throw. But Bubba Crosby ran into Roberts' arm, sending the Oriole to the ground, his arm dangling.
"When I walked off the field, I had no idea if I would ever play again," said Roberts, who hit .314 last season with 18 homers and 73 RBIs, and was voted to start in his first All-Star Game. "I remember [the play] well enough in my head. I remember the sound and the looks on the guys' faces. It makes me nauseous."
Roberts' frustration lingered for some time after the surgery. He wore a bulky brace, which started around his knuckles and continued up near his shoulder, for three weeks, before adjusting it to a smaller size for another five weeks.
The therapy, Roberts said, started the day after the surgery and continued at the Athletes' Performance training facility in Tempe, Ariz., and it was around mid-December when Roberts started trying to lift weights again. At first, Roberts struggled to do a curl with a 1-pound dumbbell.
"I remember laying on the trainer's table, watching people lift and saying, `I'll never do that again,'" said Roberts.
To get through what Roberts called a mentally and physically grueling process, the player got regular calls from manager Sam Perlozzo, and heard twice from owner Peter G. Angelos. Kremchek also set up a talk between Roberts and Reds infielder Tony Womack, who had a similar injury.
His parents moved in with him for five weeks, helping Roberts with everything and taking away some of the frustration from his inability to do even the simplest of chores.
"I was basically incapable of taking care of myself," he said. "It probably took me five weeks to be able to put a pair of socks on."
However, about a month ago, Roberts said that he felt as if he finally turned the corner. Jay Gibbons, who distinctly remembered a time when Roberts was struggling with 5-pound weights, would look over and see his buddy lifting 20-pound dumbbells one week, then 30- and 40-pounders the next.
While acknowledging that he is not as strong as he was last year, Roberts said he is now capable of doing most of the things he used to be able to do. Roberts, who is disappointed that he won't be able to play for his country in the coming inaugural World Baseball Classic, will be able to participate in all the fielding drills, but still is unsure when he'll be able to take batting practice.
He has been taking dry swings and hitting Wiffle balls off a tee, and he plans to do a little soft-toss today. He has said that he'd like to get about 40 at-bats this spring
"I don't want to push him," said Perlozzo, who is hopeful that last year's team Most Valuable Player will be ready for Opening Day. "If anything, we'll have to pull the reins back on him a little."
Roberts saw Kremchek about a week and a half ago and the doctor said his elbow looks as "good as it possibly can."
"This will be a speed bump in the road for him more than a career-threatening injury," said Kremchek. "I don't judge baseball players' talent, but from his work ethic and from what I heard about him, I think he'll have another big year and more big years to come."