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Bip and a-Boppin’: Roll Over, Hank Aaron

Guys named Bip don’t hit game-winning home runs. Maybe Bruiser might. Or Basher or Boomer. Not Bip.

Guys named Bip figure to be jockeys . . . disc jockeys, at that.

Guys named Bip don’t swing bats. They retrieve them.

St. Louis pitcher Jose DeLeon, a bruiser himself at 6-feet-3, 215, didn’t figure to be quaking in fear when Leon (Bip) Roberts stepped to the plate for the Padres in the sixth inning Wednesday. The Cardinals were up by a run, with two out and a runner on first.

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DeLeon had to be thinking to himself, “This guy’s still here? I thought recess would be over by now.”

DeLeon had disposed of Roberts on a called third strike in the second inning and given up an “excuse me” bloop hit in the fourth. The Cardinals were feeling so threatened that the bullpen was asleep, in spite of the fact that the Padres already had a home run and a single in the inning.

All Roberts did, of course, was hit a line drive into the right-field seats, and the Padres were on their way to a 4-3 victory.

Lest DeLeon waste too much time moping about getting his leg bitten off by a toy poodle, he should be advised that Roberts is beginning to make a habit of this sort of thing. Upon awakening the morning of April 23, he had a total of four career home runs, and Bip was a mere blip in Henry Aaron’s rear-view mirror. In the 10 days since, Roberts has hit three home runs.

Indeed, it used to be laughable to even include slugging percentage on his statistical line. Slugging was to Bip Roberts what stolen bases were to Harmon Killebrew. But on this, the morning of May 3, Roberts is third among Padre regulars with a slugging percentage of .458. Only Benito Santiago (.671) and Jack Clark (.500) are higher. Notables such as Fred Lynn (.375) and Joe Carter (.361) are in his rear view mirror.

All of this is from a guy who stands 5-feet-7 and weighs 165 and looks as if he should be standing in a loft with a hymnal, singing “Amazing Grace.”

And what of this burst of power from the Padres’ Mini-Musket?

“That’s not the type of player he is,” said Manager Jack McKeon, “but we’ll take home runs wherever they come.”

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In Roberts’ case, they come from an off-season dedicated to making himself a stronger player.

“Basically, it’s from a winter working out and lifting weights,” Roberts said. “I stayed here and worked five days a week. I’d lift three days a week and hit two. I didn’t have anything else to do.”

For the Padres’ sake, nobody had better tell him about off-season endeavors such as fishing, hunting and golf. He’d probably rule out fishing anyway, for fear that someone would think to use him as bait.

Perhaps Roberts took it seriously that either third base or left field, the two positions he figured to play, are considered power positions. Then, lo and behold, he gets to the park Tuesday and finds himself hitting seventh, a power position, rather than first.

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This annoyed him because he had never in his career hit anywhere but first, second or third.

“But,” he said, “I had to look at it as another adjustment.”

Understand that Roberts played left, center, right, second, short and third in 1989. Adjustments are not alien to him.

“I’ve spent my whole life making adjustments,” he said.

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One was from being the Padres’ second baseman of the future in 1986 to a minor leaguer in 1987 and 1988. More than coincidentally, the Padres made their move in 1989 when Roberts became a fixture at the top of the batting order while playing third and left. He hit .301 and earned himself a future, though he couldn’t have known for sure at what position.

If Roberts keeps hitting the way he has been hitting lately, he may have more adjustments ahead. If he keeps hitting three home runs every 10 days, he won’t be hitting first or seventh. Guys who hit home runs with that frequency usually find themselves hitting fourth.

Should that be the case, Roberts will have to do something about his home run trot. Sluggers are supposed to watch their masterpieces soar into the ozone, disdainfully tossing their bats aside and circling the bases as though to keep a step or two ahead of a glacier. Roberts went around the bases Wednesday as if he had a Doberman at his heels.

Moments before Roberts’ home run Wednesday, in fact, Clark had hit a homer that came within a few feet of bouncing off the facing of the second deck. And Clark knows how to do a home run trot.

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“I was sitting with Joey Cora on the bench,” Roberts said, “and Joey told me, ‘We never get to enjoy our hits like that.’ ”

So Roberts steps right up and hits a home run and races around the bases.

“I knew it was a line drive,” he said apologetically, “so I took off flat out running. I thought I might get a triple out of it.”

With more experience, of course, he will get the feel for what it is like to strike a ball well enough to land it in the stands. For now, though, he considers all of his home runs to be accidents. He picked a good place and time for one of those accidents to happen Wednesday.

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Let him keep this up, and his home runs will no longer be accidents.

Let him keep this up, and he will come to be known as Bopper rather than Bipper.


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