Column: What pressure? Dave Roberts unflappable during a winter of discontent
In October, he was booed out of Dodger Stadium.
In November, he learned the Dodgers might have been cheated out of a championship by a team managed by one of his best friends.
Last week, he excitedly offered clues that the Dodgers could be signing one of baseball’s two biggest free agents, then they completely whiffed on both.
So, Dave Roberts, how’s your winter going?
“What a question!” he responds.
Here it comes, the bitterness, the angst, the regret …
“I’m doing great, absolutely great!” he says.
“Yeah, I’m having a blast, there is no better job than being the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, it’s my dream job, it’s been that way for five years, and I can’t wait to bring the city of Los Angeles a championship,” he says.
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Say this much for baseball’s most maligned manager with four consecutive division titles: Doc puts on a good show. Roberts might not be beloved in Chavez Ravine, but he is perfect for Hollywood, always in character as the unflappable leading man, always believing in the power of one more pitch, one more swing, a human walk-off.
He stalks through the graveyard of criticized decisions, smiles amid the tsunami of sign-stealing controversy, and never stops believing that Dodgers ownership will actually spend the extra bucks it takes to cement a championship.
“Honestly, the No. 1 thing I do is look forward,” he says. “What occupies all my thoughts and energy is moving forward.”
He pauses, the silence in this energetic recent phone interview suddenly and strangely prolonged.
“Being this way, it helps keep my sanity,” he says.
Ah, there’s the crack. Of course there are cracks. Roberts is no actor. Roberts is regular people. This is a guy who wouldn’t begin this season’s division-clinching celebration until two injured players could join in via FaceTime. This is a guy who gets bubbly on opening day, teary-eyed on Memorial Day, and once spread his father’s ashes in center field before the opening game of the World Series.
Robert doesn’t only hear the boos, he wears them.
“It doesn’t feel good, certainly,” he says.
Roberts isn’t only following the Houston Astros cheating scandal involving Astros manager and buddy A.J. Hinch, he’s feeling it.
“I just can’t revisit every at-bat and every pitch,” he says. “It’s the only way I can cope.”
Roberts doesn’t only believe the Dodgers need to acquire an October-tough player, he knows it.
“There’s a lot of ways to go about it other than free agency,” he says, as if convincing himself. “We’re not done. We’re not done.”
Roberts is as much of a regular Dodger fan as the Dodger fans who deride him, which makes it sting even more when they shower him with jeers. He accepts their disdain, but he would be lying if he said it didn’t hurt.
”For 31 years, the best fans in sports haven’t had that parade, and any decisions you make that don’t work, you’re to blame,” he says.. “That’s a tough way to go about it. It’s tough to hear. But I accept it. I understand it. I’m in there with them.”
He’s with them, but he’s also very much alone, and here’s guessing this “absolutely great’’ winter has also been a bit of a lousy winter. Here’s wondering if Roberts hasn’t been quietly, understandably stewing in this morass of controversy and skepticism, his acting chops in high gear, the trademark smiles a little more forced.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to it in January, yes,” he says.
In case you’re wondering, though, he’s not backing off his infamous decisions that led to the Dodgers’ late-inning loss in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
Yes, he would still allow Clayton Kershaw to return to the mound in the eighth inning, when he gave up consecutive home runs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto that tied the score.
“He had thrown three pitches and was working on four days rest,” says Roberts. “To have him go back out there and get two more hitters, his stuff was good.”
And, yes, he still would have sent Joe Kelly back out for the 10th inning, when he surrendered an eventual game-winning grand slam to Howie Kendrick.
“Kelly had thrown 10 pitches, he had been lights out, he was fresh, I would do the same thing again,” he says.
What he didn’t say, what he’ll never say, is that he was working with a bullpen whose closer, Kenley Jansen, just wasn’t right, a bullpen that lacked depth of veteran relievers.
Roberts won’t say these things because he’s blindly loyal to a Dodgers operation that has won seven consecutive division championships. That loyalty seemingly impacted his decision to stick with Kershaw, an error which cost them a series, yet Roberts won’t back down.
”This whole thing bums me out because I love the Dodgers, love the fan base, love the history of it all, we do things the right way, we’ve won a lot of games, we have a lot of really great players,” he says. “But we’ve just got to play better.”
Another thing he won’t say is that, at this point, ownership also needs to play better. The stage was set for the Dodgers to sign pitcher Gerrit Cole last week, Andrew Friedman did the work, Roberts pushed the brand … and yet ownership wouldn’t pay the money. They also had a shot at Rendon, but he chose the Angels instead because he didn’t like the Los Angeles lifestyle.
All this, after Roberts had promised so much more in his winter meetings’ news conference.
“I would say as far as with my time here, I think this is probably the most turnover we’ll have from one season to the next,” he told reporters.
Turnover? So far, they’ve signed former Oakland Athletics reliever Blake Treinen, a star in 2018 who last season lost his closing job and accumulated a 4.91 ERA.
‘I think there’s some good things happening,” Roberts told reporters.
Clayton Kershaw would have no problem with longtime rival Madison Bumgarner signing with the Dodgers, but he is upset with the Astros’ allegedly cheating.
Well, so far, not really.
“We’re being more aggressive than I can recall,” Roberts told reporters.
Not aggressive enough, actually, and now Friedman must pull off a Francisco Lindor-type trade to convince anyone that the 2020 Dodgers finally have the roster to survive the postseason.
Roberts doesn’t feel like ownership hung him out to dry. He is not apologizing for being so optimistic. You ask him, he’ll repeat all those quotes again.
“We’re going to do some things that help us win a lot of baseball games,” he says. “We’re still trying to make ourselves better.”
On a team with a famously revolving roster, Dave Roberts is the one Dodger who always knows his role. He plays it well. You can keep booing, I can keep criticizing, he’ll just keep preaching.
Anything for sanity.
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