Column: Rejuvenated Dave Roberts brimming with positivity amid season of change for Dodgers
Something is different about Dave Roberts this spring.
His smile is brighter.
His laughter is more soulful.
“Great to see you!” he hollered at me the other day, the sarcastic greeting he has repeated over the years delivered with so much exuberance that I wondered if he actually meant what he said this time.
Four months removed from a deflating elimination in the divisional round of the playoffs, Roberts looks and sounds more joyful than he’s ever been in his seven-plus years as the manager of the Dodgers.
In the despair that followed his team’s latest October setback, Roberts said he rediscovered what drove him.
“I’ve just come to the realization that I just love my job and I love the grind,” he said. “I don’t know if it was an epiphany because I’ve always loved my job and I’ve always said how much I love being the manager of the Dodgers, but that feeling kind of just makes sense to me now.”
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Positivity has always been one of Roberts’ trademarks, but the more he managed, the more he seemed burdened by expectations and the more he appeared stung by criticism.
In recent months, he liberated himself from the negativity.
He’s learned to accept what he’s understood conceptually for some time, that not everything is in his control.
He’s found renewed enthusiasm in the prospect of leading what he views as essentially a new team in the wake of the departure of multiple clubhouse cornerstones.
“You’re going to like this team,” he said.
The Dodgers don’t have as much proven depth as they’ve had in the past and the inexperienced pairing of Gavin Lux at shortstop and Miguel Vargas at second base could be a disaster in the making, but Roberts prefers to view the changes as chances.
“I will always have love for the players that were here and have moved on,” Roberts said of a group that added over the winter the likes of Trea Turner, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner and Tyler Anderson.
However, Roberts also said, “I hate the word ‘change,’ the phrase ‘changing of the guard,’ but I do think that mixing things up presents opportunities for guys and roles to change, evolve. If you don’t have a changing of the guard and then fuse new talent, there’s a part of things that get a little stale. Change is not always a bad thing.”
This is trademark Roberts, taking on obstacles with an abundance of positivity.
This was how he endured eight years in the minors before he became a full-time major league player at 30. This was how he stole a base for the Boston Red Sox that started the greatest comeback in baseball history. This is how he beat cancer. And this is how he will manage a team that has the potential to both win 90-plus games or miss the playoffs entirely if either Mookie Betts or Freddie Freeman are sidelined for an extended period.
Roberts mentioned he was at Kobe Bryant’s final game. He did so not to point out that Bryant scored 60 points in the game, but to paraphrase what the Lakers guard said to the crowd afterward.
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“There’s going to be tough days and good days, bad days, but we can all love the process, love the journey, show up each day with a positive outlook,” Roberts said.
The Dodgers are by no means underdogs, but they aren’t the overwhelming favorites they were entering pretty much every season over the last decade.
“I absolutely like it,” he said. “Our guys, even early on — I mean, it’s been less than a week — but there’s a different edge. There’s an edge to this group.”
Roberts said he was encouraged by how many of his players are on the Dodgers by choice. J.D. Martinez and Noah Syndergaard chose to sign with them, Roberts said. Clayton Kershaw chose to return. Austin Barnes chose to sign a contract extension.
Follow along for the latest news and analysis from Dodgers spring training at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix ahead of the 2023 MLB season.
Personally, I’d take Aaron Judge over a can-do attitude, but, hey, the Dodgers have to make do with what they have.
What they have is a version of Roberts who is finally comfortable enough in his role to be himself — not just some of the time, but all of the time.
Whether he’s offering advice to a pitcher throwing a bullpen session or his voice is echoing across the administrative building at the Dodgers’ spring training complex, Roberts has become a constant source of vivacity. None of the behavior seems contrived. His smiles aren’t forced. He’s not choosing his words as carefully as he did in the past when he was concerned about how they might be received in the locker room. He doesn’t appear burdened by expectations, which remain World Series or bust for the Dodgers.
“It’s a new start,” Roberts said.
And it could be the start of a new phase of Roberts’ career, which could be coming at the right time for these particular Dodgers.
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