For much of the past year, Brian Roberts has kept his deepest, darkest fears out of public view, choosing instead to put up a stoic front and sidestep any request to speculate about his painfully slow recovery from a pair of concussions.
Only in the past few weeks has he begun to shed any light on the months he spent waiting for the fog to lift. And — just hours before he celebrated his long-awaited return to the Orioles lineup with three hits and a sacrifice fly in Tuesday night's 8-6 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates — he said that for a big chunk of his time away he was convinced he would never play the game again.
“I'd say there were months at a time where I thought this would never occur,” said Roberts, who went 3-for-4 with an RBI. “My doctor, even as recently as probably January when I saw him, he said he never had full doubts, but there were times throughout the process that the future looked so bleak.”
It’s a little easier to talk about now. Roberts came out from under that cloud of uncertainty to spend three weeks playing in the Orioles minor league system and rejoin the Orioles lineup for Tuesday night’s interleague series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Camden Yards. His big performance rated him another milestone – his first postgame pie in the face – and left him choked with emotion.
“After I wiped it off I did [get choked up],’’ he said. “All the fans were cheering around me and I got a little emotional again. Talk about feeling like part of the team. I hadn’t felt like that in a long time.”
During the months he spent battling the debilitating symptoms that followed that disastrous headfirst slide May 16, 2011, at Fenway Park, however, concerns about his baseball future were really a secondary consideration. Roberts had no way of knowing whether the symptoms would ever recede enough for him to lead a normal life.
“I haven't started a family yet. ... I haven't had kids yet,” he said. “I have a wife that I want to love and support the rest of my life, and all those things take physical abilities to be able to do. There were many times during that process, there were hours upon hours upon hours where I wasn't capable of providing some of those sorts of things.
“That was a greater concern for a bigger portion of it than baseball was, I'd say that. Because baseball is important and my contract is important, but I would hope people would understand that was No. 1.”
It was obvious by his demeanor during his pregame news conference that he was very excited to have made it all the way back on both a personal and professional level.
Who can blame him? He overcame a gruesome elbow injury in 2005 to establish himself as one of the top leadoff hitters in the game. He missed most of the 2010 season with an assortment of injuries, including the first freak concussion, suffered when he banged himself on the helmet after a strikeout.
So it's been quite a while since he has really been himself in an Orioles uniform, and he would probably be the first to acknowledge that it will be a while before he proves he is all the way back. He seemed satisfied Tuesday to walk into the Orioles clubhouse feeling like he belonged.
“Yeah, just excited to be here,” he said. “It was great to walk into the locker room and not just see the guys, but feel like you're one of them again. For a long time, I didn't feel that way and today I do, finally.”
Roberts wasted no time making his presence felt. He did not get any action at second base in the top of the first, but went to the plate amid a standing ovation in the bottom of the inning and stroked a line drive into center field for his first major league hit since that fateful day in Boston. He followed that up with a strikeout in his next at-bat, but singled two more times and drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. What a way to re-start your career.
If there was any concern that he might be tentative on the bases, it was dispelled when he tried to take out Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes on double-play balls in the first and eighth innings.
If anyone in the Orioles clubhouse was surprised he made it back or doubts he still has what it takes to be a major asset to the team, no one was letting on.
“A lot of guys with the challenges that Brian's faced might have packed it in,” said manager Buck Showalter. That would have been a way some people might have taken. But he loves to play. He loves the game of baseball and loves the Orioles. I wouldn't deny him the ability to do anything.”
Roberts insisted before the game that he has no concerns about playing every day at the major league level.