Improved Relations : His Father Recovering From Drug Addiction, Bip Roberts Is Fulfilling His Potential With Padres

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The voice on the other end of the telephone, trying to stay vibrant and robust, starts to tremble.

The speaker wants to apologize to his son, the one he neglected most of the past five years. He wants to tell him that he is sorry for the suffering he has caused. Most of all, he wants to let him know that he has a father again.

"I'm so sorry for everything I've done to him," Leon Roberts says. "I cry at night, thinking how I've hurt him. There were a lot of things I did that weren't very nice. I've put him and my family through so much. . . .

"I lied. I stole. I'd do anything for the drugs. That stuff made me so crazy, I didn't care about anything else but myself.

"If it wasn't for my son, I don't know if I'd even be around today. He saved my life. He made me become a real person again.

"Man, I've sure been some father, huh?

Leon Roberts, 48, is a recovering drug addict who makes his home at the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco. He lives with about 350 addicts, most of them former convicts.

"This is usually the last stop for people," a staff member said. "By the time people come here, they've usually burned every bridge in their family. These are people who have hit absolute rock-bottom."

Bip Roberts, 27, voted the most valuable player on the San Diego Padres last season, never envisioned in his worst nightmare that his father would end up there.

"Will you accept a collect call from Leon Roberts?"

Bip Roberts and his wife, Janina, had become accustomed to those calls.

"I didn't care what time it was," Leon said. "I didn't give a damn about anyone else but me. It was always me, me, me. That's the way the drug is. You forget about everyone else but your next high."

Janina, the one who mostly answered the calls, said the routine always remained the same:

"Hi, Janina, how you doing?

"How's the kids?"

"How's everything?"

Pause.

"Is my boy around?"

Leon was looking for money, and always, Bip would respond. He gave him $100 on some occasions, $200 on others. He would go to the nearest Western Union office and wire the money. Leon never bothered calling back to say thanks, saving his next call for another handout.

"He never asked me for money," Janina said. "It was always Bip. But what could we do? We always had money, so we'd always give it to him. He's family."

Roberts would be depressed for days after the phone calls. Once when Leon called, asking for a handout, he told Roberts that he now had a baby sister. Roberts cried so hard that night his rib cage ached, knowing that whoever the mother was, it certainly wasn't his mother.

Roberts hoped and prayed the money was being spent on food and shelter, but he and Janina knew they were only kidding themselves. When you're addicted to crack cocaine, food is an afterthought.

"The times that Bip answered the phone, he'd never tell me who it was," Janina said. "But I knew. He'd just hold it all in, but it was just tearing him apart.

"It never has been an easy conversation with him. He's been dealing with it since high school, but he never wanted to talk about it. It was like he was ashamed."

Bip Roberts said: "I guess I was embarrassed by it more than anything. I mean, you don't hear of too many people having a drug addict for a father. He tore our family apart. My whole family's been destroyed because of him.

"But he's my dad, man. My own dad. You think I'm going to stop loving my dad?"

Ronnie Aubry, Janina's father, finally convinced them that the handouts would have to stop. Never mind that this was draining their pocketbook, he said, this was draining Leon's life. The more money he received, the more money he had for drugs.

"My father said that's all we were doing, aiding his habit," Janina said. "We had thought about that before, but when you hear it from someone else, it sinks in.

"We told ourselves, 'The next time he calls, we can't help him. We've just got to stop.' And we did."

Said Aubry: "Everyone felt so helpless. There was really nothing else left, but to see what would happen without help."

The calls started to diminish, and when Leon finally realized that no more money would be coming, they stopped. Months elapsed before Bip and Janina heard from him again. Then, on the afternoon of March 4, 1990, two weeks before the start of the lockout-delayed spring training, the phone rang again.

The speech was badly slurred, and the voice was barely audible. But the message was clear.

"He was crying out, begging for help," Roberts said. "And if he didn't get some help real fast, something bad was going to happen. I think he was going to kill himself.

"He didn't have any place to go. He didn't have anybody to turn to. I knew if I didn't do something drastic now, the next phone call I'd get would be from the coroner's office, saying, 'We found your father. He's dead.' "

Roberts made a few calls and was on the first flight to Oakland the next morning. He telephoned the number his father had left him. It belonged to a hotel where addicts live five to a room, and prostitutes pay by the hour.

Roberts cringed when he got there. Leon had reddened, glassy eyes, unkempt hair, disheveled clothing. He hadn't eaten in days. He hadn't showered in weeks.

Roberts hardly recognized his father.

"I was totally shocked," he said. "It was like a different person in my dad's body. He had gone downhill so fast."

Roberts and his sister, Lori, took Leon to their mother's house. They fed him, bathed him, listened to him beg for help. Then they drove him to the Delancey Street Foundation, a self-help residence, and prayed he would stay.

"It was the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life," Roberts said. "But I knew if I didn't do it, I'd probably never see him alive again."

Leon Roberts celebrated the one-year anniversary of his stay last Tuesday. There were many times he wanted to leave. There were many times he didn't think he could make it. There were many times he couldn't think of anything else but getting high again.

"I'm not going to say I made it, because it's still early," Leon Roberts said. "The temptation is still there. It's there every day. But I'm so happy now. I feel like a normal person again. You know, when I first came here, it was for them. I did it for the family. Now, it's for me.

"The door's open for me to leave any time, but I know I'm not ready. I'm not going to rush this. I want to make sure that once I leave, I don't come back. I want to make sure I put my life back together before I leave here, so I'll probably be here another year.

"I know when I come out, there will be a lot of things talked about. There's a lot of apologies I need to make. I hurt a lot of people. Most of all, I just want to be a father again to my son.

"Do me a favor, will you?

"Tell him I love him."

Bip Roberts, born in Oakland, grew up with drugs. They were in the streets, in the schools. They were right there at home. It would have been easy for Roberts to have turned to drugs too.

"I couldn't, I just couldn't," Roberts said. "I always told my mom and grandmother that I'd never hurt them. And my uncle, Roy Shivers (a former NFL player), was always around, and I didn't want to answer to him."

He turned to baseball. It was his first love, anyway. He was 4 when his dad started taking him to the playground and by the time he was 5, he was hooked.

"I remember throwing him baseballs when he was 4," Leon said. "They'd hit him in the nose. He'd start crying. His nose would be running. But he learned, boy.

"By the time he was 5, I was bragging to everyone that he was going to be a major league ballplayer.

"I just knew it."

Others started believing it, too, once they got a look at this 5-foot-7 kid at Skyline High. He was the first sophomore in school history to be selected to the all-city team. He was the school's first high school All-American. Every scout in the land knew all about Leon Joseph Roberts III.

They were all calling for his services. There was California offering him a full scholarship. There was Nevada Las Vegas. And there were the Pittsburgh Pirates, drafting him in the fourth round, and offering him $20,000.

Those were the good times, and Leon always was there for his son. If he wasn't driving him to practice, he was driving him to games. If he wasn't driving to games, he was taking his son to the playground for individual instruction. Leon, a cosmetologist, arranged his entire schedule around his son.

"He seemed like a great father," Piniella recalls. "Every time I looked up in the stands, he was there. But I knew something was wrong, I just knew it. I just could never put my finger on it."

Piniella knew the trouble was much worse than he imagined when he went to the Roberts home one afternoon to witness the signing of a letter of intent to attend Cal. It was all set. Roberts had agreed to the decision the previous day, and everyone seemed thrilled.

"Well, we walk into the house, have all the paperwork ready, and his mom says, 'He's not going there. He's going to Vegas,' " Piniella said. "I couldn't believe it. It was pretty embarrassing because the Cal coach was right there.

"That's when I knew something was wrong in the family. They wanted Bip out of there, to get away from home. I kept telling him not to go to Vegas, because it was a lousy program and he wouldn't learn anything. But I don't know if he had a choice."

The primary reason for the decision, the family says, was Shivers. He was going to be the running back coach for the UNLV football team. And as long as he was there, he would keep an eye on Roberts.

Roberts didn't even last a semester. He developed a hernia while playing in the fall, and the UNLV coaching staff never believed the diagnosis.

"They thought I was jaking it," Roberts said. "Here I am, out for two months, and they're still calling it a pulled groin. I had to get out of there."

Roberts underwent a hernia operation and, during the winter holiday break, transferred to Chabot Junior College. A young woman became pregnant by him, and this time when the Pirates drafted him, he readily accepted, signing for $40,000.

He stayed three years in the Pirate chain, but after suffering a shoulder separation in a collision with teammate Bobby Bonilla in 1984, and still not fully recovered the following season, he was left unprotected in the 1985 draft.

Jack McKeon, Padre general manager, and farm director Tom Romenesko decided to take a chance. The rules of the draft stipulated that Roberts had to remain on the Padre big league roster for the entire 1986 season or be returned to the Pirates.

Although Roberts still hadn't played in a league higher than double A, he told reporters that he would make everyone forget about Alan Wiggins. He told them that he was going to be the spark plug of the Padres. He told them he was going to be a star.

He was 22.

"He was talking about all of this in the newspaper before spring training," Padre outfielder Tony Gwynn said. "I remember thinking, 'He'd better do that, or he's going to have a lot of guys on his back.'

"He comes right in here and big-leagued it. People tagged him as our savior, and that's how he acted. He believed it."

Said Roberts: "That was about the time everything started going wrong at home. Everything was happening at once. I came into the big leagues in a funk, and never had a chance to get over it.

"No one knew what was going on in my life, and I really couldn't tell anybody."

How do you tell someone that your father, the man you've emulated throughout life, is a drug addict?

How do you tell someone that you still lie awake nights, crying about your grandmother, the one you called a second mom, who died in the middle of the 1985 season?

How do you tell someone that your family is so torn apart that the day you were married, Jan. 2, 1986, they never even bothered to show up?

"That was so hard on him," Janina said. "It was so hard for him to handle. I couldn't help much because everything was so new to me. I was new to baseball. I was new to the big leagues. I was new to marriage."

Although Roberts batted .253 in 101 games that season, his arrogance and brash behavior left everyone so unnerved that the Padres made sure he wasn't coming back. They sent him to Las Vegas, and told him to learn the outfield. He batted .306, but they left him in the minors.

The next spring, the Padres sent him to their minor league camp. While the big-leaguers were staying in hotel suites with $52 in meal money, Roberts was eating on $5 a day and wondering how much longer he could support three kids on a $20,000 salary.

"Living in a dump, barely having enough money to eat, I absolutely hated it," Roberts said.

Roberts had no choice but to work in the off-season. He worked the graveyard shift at a bottling company one winter, and worked construction with his father-in-law the next.

"I was up every morning at 6, with a hammer and a chisel, hauling around 60-pound bags of gravel," Roberts said. "That woke me up right there. I decided right then I wasn't ready to give up this game. I sure didn't want this."

Roberts hit .353 at Las Vegas in 1988, but still the Padres never called. So, disgusted one night, he walked out in the middle of a game, shed his uniform, and was about to leave the game for good.

Rob Picciolo, now the first base coach of the Padres, bolted into the clubhouse and blocked the exit. He might have also rescued Roberts' career.

"He told me if I couldn't handle this, I couldn't handle adversity," Roberts said. "Then I couldn't handle anything."

Said Picciolo: "I just told him not to make a decision he's going to regret. And he was going to regret this one."

Since then, Bip Roberts has emerged as one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. He has hit at least .300 in each of the past two seasons, scoring 185 runs. His .401 batting average on artificial turf led the major leagues. And a study matching the top 10 hitters against the top 10 pitchers in 1990 showed that Roberts had the highest batting average in the league at .385.

"The scary part is that I feel so much better this year," Roberts said.

OK, so he went a little crazy during the winter. The day after signing a one-year contract for $875,000, Roberts went out and bought a new Mercedes-Benz for his wife. The next day, he bought a new Porsche for himself. He even hired a man to come by once a week to wash and wax the cars.

"Maybe I shouldn't have done that, but I always wanted that Porsche, since high school," Roberts said. "And I wanted to do something special for my wife. It's a thing where if I don't do it now, maybe I'll never have the opportunity.

"I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow."

Indeed, although Roberts has established himself as the catalyst of the Padres, he is treating spring training as if he were a nonroster invitee.

He is on the field 1 1/2 hours every day before practice, taking ground balls and fly balls, and the last to leave the clubhouse each afternoon because of his daily weightlifting session.

This is a guy who hasn't uttered a sound about the possibility of changing positions again, although his preference would be to stay in left field.

This is a guy who refuses to move from his three-bedroom, $213,000 home, saying that there is no need to be pretentious about his place of residence.

"I'm confident I can play up here," he said. "But I still have the fear of failure. I know that everything I have now can be gone the next day.

"Most of these guys don't know that. They've never experienced what I have. They've never experienced failure.

"I know all about it."

Roberts also has something else in mind. He wants to be fully prepared for an April 22 game at Candlestick Park against the San Francisco Giants. He wants to play the greatest game of his life on that night. He wants to look into the stands, see that familiar face once again, with his hands clapping.

This is the day he plans to see his father again.

Leon already has received permission to attend the game, and says he has begun bragging in the treatment center how his son will knock off the Giants single-handedly. Like old times.

"That's what Bip wants more than anything," Janina said. "He wants him to enjoy the success he's having. That's all he talks about, having his dad in the stands cheering for him.

"That's going to be a day no one will ever forget."

Said Leon: "I don't think words are going to be able to describe that day. It's going to be unbelievable. It's been a long time, boy, I can't wait to see him in that uniform.

"I think his career is really going to take off now. He doesn't have me to worry about anymore. He can just go out, play the game, and have fun again.

"He's got his father back.

"And I have my son back."

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