Roberts dives back into fray

Merits debatable, but headfirst slide shows All-Star is back with abandon

Opening Day

April 04, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Mike Roberts is a baseball coach to the core. So when asked before yesterday's Orioles opener how he would like to celebrate the return of his son, Brian, from a horrific elbow injury, he had a simple idea.

"For me, the biggest celebration would be to see him steal second base and slide in headfirst," the former University of North Carolina coach said.

Well, the second baseman didn't fulfill his dad's request perfectly. But he came close. On his first at-bat, he sent a grounder up the middle, and as he saw the play would be close, he dived into first base to beat the throw.

"I hope he wasn't making me do that mentally," Brian Roberts said with a laugh. "It wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done."

At the same time, Roberts was thrilled to be able to play with abandon at a time when many assumed he wouldn't be playing at all.

"I don't think about it," manager Sam Perlozzo said of the dive. He then allowed a wry smile. "If he stays on the ground," Perlozzo said, "then we've got problems."

Roberts experienced the best and worst moments of his career last season. He broke out on the field, batting .314 with 70 extra-base hits and making the All-Star team. But on Sept. 20, he dislocated his elbow in a violent collision with the New York Yankees' Bubba Crosby.

That meant a winter of intense rehabilitation and uncertainty about his future.

Roberts' parents lived through his recovery, so they wanted to be present for the payoff yesterday. Mike Roberts, dressed in a pale orange sweater, stood in the aisle, video camera locked on the field as the pre-game ceremony unfolded.

"I think it's special, because there were some thoughts when he walked off that field in New York of, `Is he ever gonna play again?' " the father said.

Nancy Roberts moved in with her son as he rehabilitated, helping him with the simplest tasks, such as changing his shirt and brushing his teeth.

"If he couldn't do it with his right arm alone, he needed help," she said.

"He was pretty much an infant again," his father said with a laugh.

Roberts said he wanted his parents in Baltimore yesterday because they were such a part of his recovery.

"That was very fortunate, to have my parents be able to come out and take care of me ... and treat me like I was a kid again basically," he said. "I don't know where I'd be right now without them, how I could've gotten through those five or six weeks."

Mike Roberts has plenty of experience with baseball injuries, but he rated his son's among the two most catastrophic he has seen. When he saw Brian at Christmas, the muscular workout fiend couldn't even lift a 1-pound weight. His shoulder was sore because his left arm had been elevated in a fixed position for so many weeks.

"At that point, I wasn't sure he'd make Opening Day," Mike Roberts said.

As the family was playing around, Nancy Roberts picked up a plush ball and, without thinking, flipped it to her son. He flinched.

"I thought, `Whoa, he's worried about just catching the ball,' " she said.

Said Roberts: "I had to learn how to catch a ball again. I had to learn to hit again."

Roberts' parents left him alone once he went to spring training, figuring he had enough people worrying about him and asking after his rehabilitation.

"We read along on the Internet like everybody else," his mother said.

Mike Roberts said he wasn't worried about his son's return to game action.

"He learned that your body doesn't forget everything," his father said. "Once his shoulder was in shape, he felt those 28 years of practice start kicking in again.

"I think Brian, having grown up as a coach's son, wouldn't put himself in the lineup if he wasn't ready."

Roberts went 1-for-4 with a walk, one of the least impressive lines in a day of offensive fireworks. But he said he was content to make it through in one piece.

"I think just being able to play today was a goal I was able to reach," he said.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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