Flashback to 2004: The Boston Red Sox trail their archrivals, the New York Yankees, three games to none in the American League Championship Series. No team has ever come back from that kind of deficit. Yet down a run heading into the ninth inning of Game 4 — a potential Sox comeback means overcoming New York’s legendary closer Mariano Rivera, as well as the weight of an 86-year World Series drought. Boston’s Kevin Millar leads off the ninth with a walk.
Enter Dave Roberts, pinch runner.
Sent in to run for Millar, Roberts represents the tying run. Rivera tries to hold him close to the bag with three straight throws to first. When he finally delivers a pitch, Roberts breaks for second, beating Jorge Posada’s throw to Derek Jeter. Now and forever known as “The Steal,” Roberts’ bold base running defibrillates Red Sox Nation’s flatlining hopes and jump-starts a rally that sees him score on Bill Mueller’s game-tying single. The Red Sox win Game 4 in 12 innings, take the next three from New York, then go on to beat St. Louis in the World Series.
Taking a chance
Fast-forward to 2015: When the Dodgers decide to replace manager Don Mattingly in the off-season, they seek a strong and experienced leader, an energetic presence who will connect with players and encourage them to do the little things to win — like steal a base in the bottom of the ninth with the season on the line.
Enter Dave Roberts, manager, Los Angeles Dodgers.
Stealing a total of 109 bases during his four-year career as an outfielder at UCLA, Roberts, who graduated in 1995, is the Bruins’ all-time leader in career steals. He was named manager of the Dodgers in November 2015, the first minority manager for the fabled franchise that broke the color barrier with another Bruins baseballer, Jackie Robinson, in 1948. Roberts’ father is African-American; his mother is Japanese.
The new skipper recognizes that his background links him to a cross section of Dodgers fans on both sides of the Pacific.
“For me to be the first Japanese manager for the Dodgers, I think there’s a lot of excitement over there. I’ve talked to relatives and know how excited (Japanese fans) are, and now that we’ve signed (Japanese pitcher) Kenta Maeda, the energy and excitement for Japanese culture and the Dodgers continues to build,” says Roberts.
“And to be the first African-American manager as well, it’s kind of multilayered for me,” he continues. “I’m friends with (Robinson’s daughter) Sharon and people who played with Jackie, like Don Newcombe. I played at Jackie Robinson Stadium. I played for UCLA and the Dodgers and was a multisport athlete. On the road, my alias is Jackie Robinson. He’s somebody whom I have so much adoration for, and it’s fascinating to see the African-American culture relate, and the Japanese culture relate, and the UCLA faithful relate.”
The right stuff
At his inaugural press conference as manager, Roberts used words like “grit” and “grind” when describing what he looks for in a team and its players. These are old-school baseball terms, intangible qualities coated in infield dirt that seem almost in opposition to the clean and unemotional analytics pervasive in gamespeak today.
Believing that “baseball is a game of failure,” Roberts says that players with grit are those who maintain focus, ignore negativity and recover quickly when things don’t go their way.
“Ultimately, the goal is to win or produce a certain amount statistically. But at the core, if you’re focused on being accountable to yourself, I think that the grinding mentality — the head-down, blue-collar mentality — goes along with the metrics,” he says.
Eric Karros has a unique perspective on the hire. As a fellow Bruin (Class of 1993) and onetime Dodger teammate, he’s personally rooting for Roberts to succeed. As a broadcaster who calls games for Fox Sports, though, he puts that aside for the professional objectivity required of an expert analyst.
“There are going to be some challenges, and I think that’s probably what appealed to management,” says Karros. Dave’s always been a guy who’s had to earn everything at every level. He’s been given nothing and has always accepted challenges and done well, whether it’s on the field or off.”
Roberts says that his new job is the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I think people watching the Dodgers are going to see a group that leaves it out there every single night, and you’re going to appreciate the way the team plays and respects the game of baseball,” he says. “That’s the way I played the game, and that’s the way I feel the game should be played.”
--Tribune Content Solutions for UCLA