Dave Roberts is on first base again. It’s that October night in Boston again. A bold sprint into the abyss is required again.
Fourteen years ago, with the New York Yankees three outs from sweeping a series and heading to the World Series, Roberts famously stole second base for the Red Sox and started the greatest comeback in baseball history.
He’s in that same place now, his Dodgers stuck in one of the worst starts in Los Angeles history, their bats inexplicably slowed, their rotation unsurprisingly depleted, a blind and blazing faith needed to steal their season back.
Just remember one thing about the manager.
“He’s still that guy that stole that base,” reliever Kenley Jansen said. “He’s still the guy that believes.”
Sometimes it seems like Roberts is the only one. His critics are everywhere. His team has sagged under the weight of injury and underachievement, yet he’s the one who has been crushed by the blame.
He blows up the bullpen. He allows his offense to bleed away scoring chances. And, oh yeah, did you know he blew the World Series?
Two seasons ago he was the National League manager of the year. Last year he led the team to its first World Series appearance in 29 years. This year he’s a lame duck with a potentially expiring contract whose only future guarantee is that, if he sticks around, many Dodgers fans will wish he did not.
“Yeah, this is my most difficult year since I’ve been here,” he said Monday afternoon before the Dodgers collapsed again in a three-error 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies.
He said that like he says everything, firmly, staunchly, never betraying pain or panic. This team continues to be a mess that is not of his making, yet he never passes the buck, never makes excuses, never stops pushing.
He sits in the dugout in the middle of a Miami losing streak and guarantees a victory. He ends a despondent news conference by claiming his team will figure it out tomorrow.
“He just stays positive, even through all the bad streaks we’ve gone through, when you could easily go negative,” Jansen said. “For him to be that positive, that keeps your mind in check.”
Jansen tells the story of Roberts calling him into his office after he was tagged with a loss and two blown save opportunities in his first seven appearances. Instead of picking apart his struggles, Roberts encouraged him to remember his successes.
“He told me, visualize how you have always ended games, remember how good you were the last two years,” Jansen said. “I was worried so much about other stuff, I never thought about that. So I started doing it, visualizing how I get people out, and it worked.”
It worked so well, since that slow start Jansen has six saves in six chances with only one run given up in 13 innings. No wonder he shouts in amazement when discussing those who want Roberts’ job.
“C’mon man, people criticize him for what?” Jansen said. “Dave Roberts, he gets it.”
Roberts makes mistakes. He ripped himself this season for using Pedro Baez instead of Jansen in a defeat. He probably overreacted in pulling hard-playing Cody Bellinger out of a game for an apparent lack of hustle. He sometimes moves too quickly in late-game situations, pressing buttons that don’t need to be pressed, making moves that could wait.
But remember who he works for. This is Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi’s team. Roberts is its caretaker. He follows blueprints as well as instincts. His main job isn’t to design the game, but to create an atmosphere of success within the game.
He has done that. He’s doing it now. The aura of this team has changed. Roberts has not.
“When I look at past failures or uncertain futures, I can’t control those, so I stay positive in the moment, that’s the most powerful thing we can do,” Roberts said. “This game is such a game of failure, I think the one thing I and the coaches have to bring every day is a sense of optimism.”
He brings it. Fans may cringe at it, but ownership loves the calm face he uses to ease the potential turmoil, the constant positive spin on a bad situation.
You think he blew the World Series? He did not blow the World Series. He managed the roster he was dealt, and managed in a manner supported by the front office.
He pulled Rich Hill early in Game 2 because that’s what they do. He started Yu Darvish in Game 7 because that’s who they had. He admits that in hindsight, he could have pulled Darvish earlier, but that was just one Dodgers mistake in a World Series filled with them.
You think he should do more with this year’s team? Like, bunt and run and play small ball? They’re not built that way. They’re not particularly fast, and most of them don’t manipulate the bat particularly well.
You don’t like the way he runs the bullpen? How would you run this bullpen? Other than, ahem, bring back Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson?
“Whatever 25 guys are active that day, we’re going to focus on trying to win a game, and for me to get outside of that, that doesn’t do any service to anybody,” Roberts said. “Not once will we make an excuse for anything. I believe we have the players to be better than our record shows.”
To his credit, baseball boss Friedman willingly takes this heat. Just as he was properly doused in champagne the night the Dodgers advanced to the World Series, he will be drenched in the liability if this team fails.
“I’m very comfortable in saying that, if we had to assign blame at this point, it should be me who is taking that, and not Doc,” Friedman recently told The Times’ Bill Shaikin.
Meanwhile, Roberts will continue charging into second base, surrounded by critics, slowed by history, certain he’s going to steal it anyway.