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Column: People-pleasing Dave Roberts knows Dodgers fans need a World Series title to be happy

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts points in the dugout before a game.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts points in the dugout before a game against Arizona on Sept. 2 at Dodger Stadium.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Dave Roberts is a people person. He likes to be liked, and he always has.

Which makes this an unusual time for him.

Roberts claims he is not on social media, but he has an idea of what people are saying about him, how they don’t trust his judgment, how they don’t think the Dodgers can win a World Series with him as manager.

“I try to not take it personal,” he said over the phone.

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Roberts chuckled.

“But some things people tell me,” he said, “it seems personal.”

With the top-seeded Dodgers opening their best-of-three National League wild-card series against the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday night, Roberts will enter these playoffs as the NL manager with the most postseason experience.

The Dodgers are huge favorites against the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild card round, but reliever Devin Williams could give L.A. fits with his filthy changeup.

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He’s been here five times in five seasons with the Dodgers, a streak that represents his steady influence on the organization. Ironically, it’s also opened him up for criticism, as the team’s annual cycle of raising expectations in the regular season and disappointing in October has frustrated a market not known for its patience.

The warning Roberts once received from Tom Lasorda has become his reality: “The players are going to get all the credit, and you’re going to get all the blame.”

Never mind the Dodgers had a World Series stolen from them by the cheating Houston Astros in 2017.

Or how the Boston Red Sox were vastly superior to them in 2018.

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Or how team executive Andrew Friedman sent him into battle with a half-empty cartridge last year, handing him a roster with a feast-or-famine lineup and combustible bullpen.

Roberts won’t make excuses. He figures taking blame is part of his job.

He deals with the vitriol the way he does everything else — with his trademark smile and an abundance of optimism.

“I really believe that the majority feels we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “They’re supporting us through thick and thin. But there’s a small minority that just is very vocal and looks at everything cynically.

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“Whether it’s true or not, I think the loudest voices are not the majority.”

In other words, whether it’s true or not, he’s choosing to believe that’s the case.

Where it becomes harder to do that is when he’s questioned for mistakes that aren’t entirely of his making.

In every series, unexpected problems surface that remove entire branches of a decision tree. Whether it’s an injury or some other issue, these complications often remain behind closed locker room doors, never divulged to the public.

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But choices made against this backdrop can damage reputations, even one such as Roberts’ that was built over 20 years in the major leagues as a respected player, coach and manager.

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulls starting pitcher Rich Hill.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulls starting pitcher Rich Hill in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the World Series on Oct. 27, 2018, at Dodger Stadium.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Roberts acknowledged such criticism is particularly difficult to accept.

“But there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “All I can do is continue to do what I believe is best for the Dodgers. I can’t make people trust me or like me, but I can gain the respect of the people in the clubhouse and the organization. The people that I’ve got to really answer to are the players.”

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Ultimately, Roberts can stomach the condemnation because he views it as temporary. He believes the Dodgers will be champions, and that when they are, everything will change.

“Absolutely,” he said.

At the moment, he’s bearing the weight not only of his four unsuccessful ventures into the postseason but also every one of the Dodgers’ failures since 1988.

But Roberts has experienced the other side of this.

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He was a player on the 2004 Red Sox team that won the franchise’s first World Series in 86 years. The burden of history added to the magnitude to the achievement.

As Roberts waits for the waters to calm, he takes solace in the culture he’s helped create.

“The guys that I respect as leaders in industries across the board don’t live in a world of just results,” he said. “The process has to be right and consistent.”

He pointed to Gregg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs.

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“He doesn’t win every year,” Roberts said, “but there’s a culture in how they go about it.”

Roberts recited a quote by J.J. Watt, the All-Pro defensive end for the Houston Texans: “Success isn’t owned. It’s leased, and rent is due every day.”

“I love that,” Roberts said.

To Roberts, the implementation of this mindset explains why the Dodgers have won more games than any team in baseball the last five years.

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He thinks their culture explains how they were able to avoid stumbling in a pandemic-shortened 60-game season.

Part of the foundation is the optimism Roberts provides. Third baseman Justin Turner said Roberts’ attitude was especially important this year.

Jay Johnstone, the fun-loving outfielder who was best known for his clubhouse pranks and a dramatic pinch-hit home run that helped the Dodgers win the 1981 World Series, died Saturday. He was 74.

“Doc’s a positive guy, upbeat,” Turner said. “He’s kind of been that way all along. Obviously, you don’t want to come into the season worried or careful.”

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That also applies to the postseason.

Dangers are everywhere. The opening round of the expanded playoffs is a three-game series, which is the baseball equivalent of a coin flip. A shortage of experienced starting pitchers could force the Dodgers to use a reliever as an “opener” in a potential Game 3. And while their bullpen posted the lowest earned-run average in the NL, they don’t have the lights-out arms the Brewers do.

There are a number of hard choices ahead, countless more opportunities for Roberts to be second-guessed.

“The mindset we’re having is with this year, with eight teams now in each league and the shorter wild-card series ... it’s just trying to keep our guys focused on ourselves and playing good baseball,” Roberts said. “I just believe that if we can do that throughout the playoffs, we’re the best team and we should ultimately accomplish our goal.”

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And with that, Roberts would forever have a place in Dodgers history, not as a manager who removed a pitcher too early or too late but as a leader who delivered the franchise its first championship of this generation.


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