Brian Roberts' comeback tour looks promising in Bowie

Second baseman gets more comfortable with Baysox in long journey back to Baltimore

June 03, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

BOWIE — — The long, strange odyssey of Brian Roberts continues.

On Sunday, the rehab tour of the Orioles' second baseman had him at Prince George's Stadium, one of those new-ish minor league ballparks that somehow manages to feel like something out of "Bull Durham" at the same time.

(My favorite outfield sign juxtaposition: a Wawa billboard showing a huge sub sandwich stuffed with meat under an Anne Arundel Medical Center sign that says "These are the doctors you want." Wonder if one's a cardiologist?)

In front of an announced 5,887, Roberts had himself a decent outing.

He played seven innings and walked, struck out twice, doubled in a run and lined out to left for the Double-A Bowie Baysox in their 8-3 win over the Reading Phillies. He also looked smooth helping turn two double-plays.

The night before, in a 7-3 Bowie loss to Reading, he homered in his first at-bat and added a walk and a strikeout while diving head-first for two ground balls.

"That's definitely one of the things that gives you the most apprehension — diving," he said. "And sliding."

But here's the Roberts stat line that mattered most Sunday: no migraine headaches. No dizziness. No fogginess.

And that was huge for a guy attempting a comeback from multiple concussions that have put his major league career on hold for more than a year.

"That's the most important thing, to be able to play deep into games and feel good, see some pitches, get at-bats and get some plays in the field," he said when it was over. "When it comes to that, it was a very productive day."

For Roberts, it was another day to savor after so many dark days when he wondered if he'd ever feel normal again, let alone play baseball.

Something else made the day special: he made a sick kid named Dillon Papier light up, too.

Dillon is a 10-year-old from the Urbana-Frederick area with Niemann-Pick Type C disease, a rare, fatal illness that prevents the body from metabolizing cholesterol and other fats properly.

There are only 500 cases of the disease world-wide. And the majority of affected children die before they're 10. But when Dillon threw out the first pitch to Roberts and got the ball and a hug in return, the smile on the kid's face was something you wanted to press under glass.

So how do we assess this gritty, challenging Roberts comeback so far?

Hard to say.

In nine games with low Class-A Delmarva and Bowie, he's 5-for-21 at the plate with a homer and three RBIs. And he's been solid, if not spectacular, in the field.

So there's been lots of progress since the dark days when every movement brought pain and disorientation. But huge questions remain. And the biggest one, of course, is this: can he be the player he once was?

Remember, he hasn't played in a major league game in more than a year. And he's 34 now, not exactly a geezer, but not a kid anymore, either.

Will he be the same confident, aggressive player he used to be? The same sparkplug at the top of the batting order? The same slick-fielding mainstay in the middle of the infield?

Will he ever again have another season like he did just three years ago, when he set a major league record for doubles in a season by a switch-hitter (56) and career marks in doubles, runs (110) and RBIs (79)?

"I wouldn't be coming back if I thought I was going to be something less," he said with a soft smile. "But I also know how the game of baseball is. I've been healthy and started 0-for-25. So I try not to panic and hope no one else does.

"If for some reason you start slow, it's not necessarily the concussion. It's the game of baseball sometimes."

The plan now is for Roberts to complete his rehab assignment with Triple A Norfolk on the road. The Tides play four games in Rochester Tuesday through Friday. They play four more in Buffalo June 9-12.

Roberts says he plans to play in six of those games. And if all goes well, if he remains symptom-free, the target date to rejoin the Orioles is June 12, the first day he's eligible to come off the disabled list.

As he stood in the near-empty Baysox clubhouse, looking tanned and fit and clear-eyed, a wistful look crossed his face.

"If I didn't feel good or I knew something was off, I wouldn't be going back out there," he said. "At this point, I don't have any of those feelings. So I'm hoping once I get back in the game and am able to play, everything will come back pretty well.

"It's been as good as I could have hoped so far."

The long, strange odyssey isn't over yet for Roberts. But the man is smiling now. He's close to returning. Closer than he ever dared think a year ago.

So close he can almost feel it.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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