It was right about this time last year that Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts felt a twinge in his lower back.
Not a big deal, or so he thought. Just a back spasm or maybe a kidney stone. There was still a month to go before the start of full squad workouts, so there was little reason for concern that the problem would impact the season.
Roberts was wrong, of course. Everybody knows that now. He had suffered a herniated disk in his lower spine and that would limit him to just 59 games and — he said at FanFest Saturday — left him wondering if it might cut short his career while he was still very much in his prime.
"Sure, I think everybody at some point, when you're that frustrated and you're struggling that bad, yeah, you wonder what your future holds," he said. "'Is this it? Do I still have it in me to keep doing this?' Yeah, I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a thought process at some point. But as I continued to get better I realized that 'OK, maybe that door is not being closed yet.' I still feel like I have a lot of great years left, but at the time, it became a little frustrating and you weren't 100 percent sure."
He recounts all this in his usual matter-of-fact tone, as if it is all so much ancient history that can be tucked safely away, never to darken his thoughts again. This winter was spent worrying more about the concussion he suffered near the end of the 2010 season, the after-effects of which were still evident barely a month ago.
Finally, he said, it's all good.
"I'm great … I feel as good as I've felt in a year and a half, two years, so I'm excited to get out there and start playing,'' Roberts said. "It took me a little while, as the winter went on, to get to that point, but once I got there, my workouts have been great. I'm already hitting and throwing and running and doing all that stuff, so I'm excited."
The Orioles fans who crowded into the Baltimore Convention Center Saturday to enjoy the team's annual winter carnival want badly to share that excitement. It became pretty obvious over the frightful first four months of the 2011 season just how much impact Roberts has on the Orioles' batting order.
In his absence, the Orioles appeared to be on their way to one of the worst won-loss records in baseball history. With him back in the everyday lineup, they were one of the winningest teams in baseball over the final two months of the season.
Of course, there were a number of factors that contributed to that dramatic turnaround, which started on the very day that new manager Buck Showalter took over the team, but it's not as if Roberts was an unknown quantity. We're talking about a player who led the league with 50 stolen bases in 2007 and 56 doubles in 2009. He's a glue guy, so there's little doubt that the disk problem took a major bite out of the Orioles offensive chemistry.
There's also little doubt that the O's will need him healthy all year to have any chance of picking up where they left off in September and remaining competitive in the American League East, but there are no guarantees. Spinal injuries, as anyone in the back business will tell you, are tricky things.
Roberts looks great and he was very upbeat as he held court with the media Saturday, and not just because he finally feels so good. He said he's also excited about the winter acquisitions that left him as the only everyday holdover on the Orioles' infield.
"We've really used the surplus that we had with those bullpen arms and gone out and got pieces that are going to be really crucial to our success, with Mark Reynolds and obviously J.J. [Hardy],'' he said. "But I think for us, the biggest key is going to be our young pitchers, our young starters. Even with the acquisitions, the young guys are still going to have to pitch well for us."
There's a lot that has to go right for the Orioles to truly turn a competitive corner this season, but Roberts thinks that last year's fantastic finish makes it much easier for the team and its fans to have a much healthier outlook going forward.
Throw in a healthy back and who knows how much better the Orioles might be this year.
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.