Column: Dave Roberts has the spirit and baseball soul for Dodgers’ job

Dave Roberts, Maury Wills

Former Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills, right, chats with outfielder Dave Roberts before the Dodgers’ opening day in 2002.

(Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)

The first time Dave Roberts stepped to home plate in a Dodgers uniform, batting leadoff on opening day in 2002 at Dodger Stadium, he scalded a ground ball into right field for a single.

He stole second. He was bunted to third. He scored on a groundout.

The man always did know how to make an entrance, and, oh boy, here he comes again, all scrappy and smart and selfless, only now he’s returning home to teach it.

Tuck away your despair and move to the edge of your seat. A dust-caked former Dodgers leadoff hitter has just been handed their diamond-encrusted lineup card. The Dodgers will soon announce they have hired Dave Roberts as their manager, and life around Chavez Ravine is about to get a little breathless.


Breathless as in standing near a fire, which Roberts will bring as a career journeyman who has little use for those entitled souls who take even one major league moment for granted.

Breathless as in feeling a tremor, which Roberts will create for a team that will learn to steal and scheme and manufacture wins in his image.

And, yes, breathless as in witnessing long overdue history. Roberts, whose father is African American and whose mother is Japanese, is the first minority manager in the history of a franchise that gave birth to the career of Jackie Robinson.

To say his heritage was a large factor in his hiring is an insult to Roberts’ achievements and potential. But to ignore the role of that heritage in Dodgers history is to ignore the struggles of those who have so long been denied an opportunity.


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The Dodgers got this hiring right for many reasons, but the main one can be found not in Roberts’ skin, but in his baseball soul, which is perfect for a team that has sometimes played as if it doesn’t possess one.

No, he doesn’t have any previous major league managerial experience, having served only two seasons as the San Diego Padres’ bench coach. But he has the right kind of baseball life experience that should make this work.

Roberts, who played collegiately at UCLA and spent parts of three seasons as the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter from 2002 to 2004, played in more than 115 games only twice in a career that didn’t start until he was 27 years old. Yet he was able to squeeze 10 seasons out of that career by doing all the little things that the current Dodgers don’t do.

His most famous play — which is also one of the most celebrated plays in baseball history — wasn’t a home run or diving catch. It was, of all things, a stolen base that is credited with starting the historic Boston Red Sox run to their first World Series championship in 86 years.

The play occurred in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, with the Red Sox trailing, 4-3, in a series in which they already trailed three games to none. Standing at first as a pinch-runner against Yankees great Mariano Rivera, Roberts stole second and later scored the tying run to start the comeback that would shatter the record books.

That’s how he played on the field, and that’s how he played after retirement, as he worked in the Padres’ front office while undergoing treatment for Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma before joining the coaching staff in the dugout.


Roberts, 43, wasn’t considered for the Padres’ managerial job after Bud Black was fired last season because the Padres wanted someone who wasn’t associated with Black. He was later a finalist for the managerial job in Seattle, but lost to Scott Servais because of Servais’ Angels association with new Mariners boss Jerry Dipoto.

Roberts was recommended to the Dodgers by Josh Byrnes, a Dodgers vice president who worked with him in San Diego. He was a longshot candidate behind front-runner Gabe Kapler, the Dodgers’ innovative minor league director, but he became the co-leader after an outstanding first interview. Roberts later won the job in ensuing interviews with Dodgers ownership, who liked the idea that he could lead the team with a combination of Andrew Friedman’s numbers and old-school baseball senses.

This should not be seen as a defeat for Friedman, who will still have a big influence on his rookie manager. For all of his eyebrow-raising moves last season, Friedman built a team that won a division, and has built a team that once played in the World Series, and Roberts will be respectful of that credibility and embracing of all the new information.

This should also not be seen as a defeat for Kapler, who seems better suited to remain in the front office and continue to positively affect the Dodgers’ improving minor league system.

This is, honestly, a win for everyone, from a Dodgers ownership group that needs to reconnect with the TV-starved fans to a Dodgers lineup that has been begging for a return to old-fashioned baseball ethics — witness Clayton Kershaw’s reported request that Yasiel Puig be traded.

More than anyone, though, this is a win for Dodgers fans who thought Don Mattingly was too icy, who thought the team was too programmed, and who had lost faith that the Dodgers could still play hardball.

Dave Roberts is all about hardball, not only from the start, but also to the finish. The last time he stepped to the plate in a Dodgers uniform? It was July 2004 in San Diego, in the ninth inning of a game that the Dodgers led by eight runs. Roberts attacked the moment like it meant something, driving a ball into the right-center field gap and sprinting to a triple.


Yeah, third base. Now that he’s back, here’s guessing the Dodgers will once again cover it.

Twitter: @billplaschke


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