He has a few more gray hairs and now sports an oversized batting helmet with double ear flaps, but the rest of Brian Roberts looked very much the same in making his long-awaited return to the Orioles in an 8-6 win over the Pirates on Tuesday.
For anyone who’s followed the second baseman’s long, painful road to recovery from concussion-related symptoms over the last 13 months, simply seeing his name on the lineup card was enough to feel good for the 34-year-old who’s spent the last 12 seasons in Baltimore.
What Roberts provided in his first game back was simply the icing on the cake as he went 3-for-4 and drove in a run with a sacrifice fly in his first major league game since May 16, 2011. But make no mistake, the veteran infielder was never satisfied with simply making it back to the diamond, especially with the Orioles playing their best baseball in seven years and entering the evening a game behind the first-place New York Yankees in the American League East.
The last thing Roberts wanted to do was mess up what’s been a good thing in Baltimore, as he admitted to having bad dreams the night before returning to the Camden Yards diamond.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Roberts said. “I wasn’t expecting three hits. I was just trying to go out there and — as cliched as it sounds — try to have good at-bats and try to do something that would help us win a game. I really didn’t want to be part of coming in here and losing five or six in a row. That was probably my biggest fear more than anything.”
The tests came immediately as Roberts singled in the first inning after the kind of six-pitch at-bat the leadoff hitter was famous for over his many seasons with the Orioles. He then proceeded to dive back into the bag on a few pickoff attempts.
He slid hard into second base to break up a potential double play in the eighth, showing no hesitation in his approach as many wondered if he would.
You can only take away so much from one game, and the Orioles and their fans will continue to hold their breath on whether the concussion symptoms resurface as they did early in the 2011 season. But Roberts passed another test with flying colors in his first game back, looking as aggressive and capable as ever.
“I think he’ll pick his spots,” said manager Buck Showalter, who plans to use Roberts at second base every day unless circumstances dictate otherwise. “But this game’s challenging enough physically. I’ve seen a lot of guys have more trouble injury-wise when they’re playing at a different clip. I don’t think you’re going to see Brian change a lot of things that he does that makes him what he is.”
If you’re a fan of redemption stories, you couldn’t help but smile seeing Roberts run onto the field after knowing how he even struggled to live a normal life at different points over the last year. It was an ordeal no amount of money — even the $10 million paid to Roberts annually — could cure despite the ignorant cries of those questioning his integrity and desire to play at various points during his recovery. The infamous occasion in which Roberts struck himself in the head with a bat in late September of the 2010 season was a mistake, not a premeditated scheme on which to hold a grudge as some detractors elected to do based on misplaced frustration.
Many inside and outside the organization understandably doubted whether Roberts would ever play again, wondering if his symptoms would ever dissipate or were part of a greater medical issue at work. It was human nature to try to examine what was happening — even with minds such as mine that were uneducated about the brain — but Tuesday should eliminate any doubts about the Baltimore second baseman’s will to play.
One three-hit night doesn’t mean the Orioles once again have the Brian Roberts of old, but it was another successful step — the latest of many the infielder has taken in recent months — for him to reclaim his regular spot as the club’s leadoff hitter and regular second baseman. And his reemergence would make the Orioles a better team than what they’ve already been over the season’s first 2 1/2 months.
For Roberts, the biggest example of feeling like a normal member of the club may have come in the moments after the game when center fielder Adam Jones — the ringleader for post-game antics — offered the shaving cream pie to the second baseman’s face in what’s become a customary practice after wins.
“After I wiped it off, all the fans were cheering around me,” said Roberts, whose voice cracked subtly at a few points during his post-game press conference. “I got a little emotional again. Talk about being a part of a team. I hadn’t felt like that in a long time.”
It was the perfect ending to a heartwarming night for the second baseman, who was greeted with a standing ovation by the sparse crowd at Camden Yards during his first at-bat.
Despite months of everyone — Roberts included — wondering if such a moment would ever take place, there he stood, ready to step in against Pittsburgh starter Brad Lincoln.
He was simply a baseball player again, no longer a cheerleader relegated to the dugout or the guy unable to move from his couch after another frustrating spell of dizziness.
“It took me a second to gather myself,” said Roberts in describing the warm reception. “It was very special and much appreciated. That’s for sure. Everyone has been so good to me here in my career. The fans have been so great and supportive of me the whole time.”
It was good to see that support on display once again.
And even better to witness the successful night that followed for the Orioles second baseman.