Orioles' Roberts Is All Heart

Brian Roberts's suddenly powerful bat has been the driving force behind the Orioles climb to the top of the AL East this season. (Chris Gardner - AP)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

BALTIMORE -- By the time the boy was 5, the hole in his heart had grown large enough to require surgery. Doctors would make a cut in the shape of a giant Y in his chest, then hook him to a machine that would keep blood flowing while they reached in and stopped the beating heart. Only then, with the heart limp and lifeless, could they patch the hole with a mesh-like substance that was supposed to keep it from malfunctioning for the rest of his life.

And on the day Brian Roberts was to have his heart turned off, the anesthesiologist misjudged the time needed for his drugs to take effect. The boy was awake and appropriately terrified when they came to take him to his operation. They picked him up anyway and, in a moment his parents still recollect with agony, the boy buried his fingers in his mother's neck, begging her to keep them from taking him.

"Mommy, I don't want to go!" he shrieked.

But the mother stayed firm. It was the father, a baseball coach, his skin toughened into a leathery hide, who watched his boy howl and felt himself go. The doors opened, his son disappeared and right there in the hospital, before everybody, the old coach began to cry.

Hearts can be funny things, though. You can't always judge them by their wounds. Sometimes the most damaged of them can grow to be the strongest. Sometimes, too, the determination of those fragile hearts can make the toughest men go soft.

Nobody gave Mike Roberts's son much of a chance at sports. Brian Roberts never did get to be very big. The Baltimore Orioles say their second baseman, in the top five of just about every hitting category this season, is only 5 feet 9. Even he says he is just 5-8 and about 170 pounds. Standing next to the rest of his teammates, he looks like he might not even be 5-5.

This got him overlooked in the game he loved the most. He was short, with stringy arms and small legs. He did not seem like an athlete. When he walked onto the field for batting practice, he did not hit the ball far into the trees the way the bigger players did. He was, in a sense, the kid down the street who adored the game his father coached so much that he wouldn't stop coming around.

So the father molded him in a way not many players were being made anymore. If the boy couldn't hit the ball into the trees, then he would become something else -- a player so fundamentally perfect, fast and with quick hands that he would be impossible to ignore. Not that everybody noticed.

Whenever he'd make a team or earn a starting spot, the whispers soon followed.

"You only got this because your father is a college baseball coach," people said.

Mike Roberts cringed when he heard this because he saw something that nobody else did. Maybe this is the father in him. Maybe it's the coach.

"I think everybody judges a player today by how far the ball jumps off the bat," he said. "Mike hit ground balls but he would always ground the ball off the meat of the bat. I think a lot of people overlooked his fundamentals."

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