Dave Roberts, rights, answers a question posed by moderator Scott Akasaki.
The Los Angeles Dodgers head coach visits JANM in an intimate meet and greet event.
By George Toshio Johnston, Contributor
When the Los Angeles Dodgers announced last year on Nov. 23 that former team member Dave Roberts would become the ball club’s manager, it was another first for the storied franchise.
After all, the Dodgers famously broke professional baseball’s color barrier in the 1950s when Jackie Robinson became the first black Major Leaguer. Decades later, the Dodgers broke new ground when it opened the floodgates for Japanese baseball players in the 1990s with the hiring of ace pitcher Hideo Nomo.
Now, at the team level, the Dodgers did it again with 44-year-old Roberts, the team’s first-ever minority to be hired for its manager post, reflecting his personal heritage as the son of an African American Marine father and a Japanese mother — Waymon and Eiko, respectively — who were seated in the audience when their son held court on June 18 at an event titled “A Conversation With Dave Roberts” at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum in Little Tokyo.
As he related the journey to his life’s latest way station as the successor to former manager Don Mattingly, prompted by questions from fellow Dodger employee Scott Akasaki — the team’s director of team travel — Roberts’ “homecoming” seemed both improbable, yet inevitable.
Born in 1972 on the island of his mother’s home prefecture, Okinawa, Japan, Roberts’ itinerant childhood as a military dependent paralleled his 10-year baseball career, which saw him play not only for the Dodgers but also the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
Prior to joining the Dodgers, Roberts worked for the San Diego Padres in several capacities, including stints in the front office and as both a first base and a bench coach — but as a team’s skipper, this was a new gig on a large, high-stakes stage.
Following the announcement, some among the Dodger fan base wondered if the lefthander was ready — but the JANM event conveyed how Roberts’ history showed a record of overcoming obstacles and confounding doubters.
Akasaki noted how Roberts, after high school in San Diego, had options many youngsters at that age might envy: a football scholarship at the Air Force Academy.
“At that point in time, I was committed to the Air Force Academy to play football there, knowing good and well I didn’t want to go to the Air Force and serve for five years and play football,” Roberts said. “I just wanted to enjoy college.”
While Roberts said he had fun playing football, baseball was his passion.
“I remember having a conversation with my dad [who said], ‘If you don’t want to go into the military, don’t do it because of me. Do what you want to do,’” Roberts said.
He wanted to do baseball.
Roberts decided it was time to “bet on myself,” and he chose to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, where he joined the baseball team as a walk-on.
“I can honestly say I was true to myself throughout this whole path,” Roberts said. “Scott mentioned the ‘fork in the road,’ and that’s funny because my mom talked to my sister and me about that all the time. You can go this way or this way, and fortunately . . . for the most part, I took the right road and the right path.”
But in 1993, when the UCLA history major became eligible to go pro, Major League baseball was hardly knocking down doors to sign him. “You were taken not in the first round but in the 47th round,” jokingly noted Akasaki, who added that Roberts decided to stay at UCLA, where to this day, he still holds the Bruins’ men’s baseball team’s record for stolen bases: 109.
Roberts, Akasaki said, was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1994 in the 28th round in the minor leagues for $1,000, where he stayed for two years — but gave serious thought to quitting baseball.
“That was actually the first time where I was a little, maybe more than a little, irritated and disappointed where I was drafted because I felt I had played well at UCLA to earn a better opportunity,” Roberts responded.
“My college roommate and really good friend of mine, Ryan McGuire, who’d signed a year prior, told me that I needed to get over it and the game of baseball will move on without you, so if you think you’re better than a 28th-round pick and $1,000 signee, then go show it,” Roberts said.
Roberts decided to quit pouting and made the All-Star team in high A ball — but was disappointed again at having to make a lateral move to a co-op team, which he described as a split of two high A teams. At 25, he seriously thought about “going to walk away.”
But after talking on a baseball dorm pay phone with his father and future wife, Tricia, he decided to “embrace the challenge” — and had one of his best seasons in the minor leagues, which led to a promotion later that year. He realized that “it’s what you make of it” and before quitting to “give everything I have.”
In 1999, Roberts was invited to the Cleveland Indians Spring Training Camp, made the team and by the postseason was on national TV in playoff games. He stayed with the team until 2001, after which he went to the Dodgers for two seasons as an outfielder.
In 2004, Roberts was traded to the Boston Red Sox, which came as a shock and a disappointment — he loved being a Dodger, and Southern California was his home. “I was in tears,” he said. Once again, however, it was a move that worked out favorably. “It turned out to be such a blessing.”
The Red Sox would that year become World Series champs. But to reach that pinnacle, the team first had to overcome a seemingly insurmountable deficit against a despised nemesis — and Roberts would play a key part.
Roberts’ vaunted footspeed would lead to a moment that would make Red Sox team history, in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against rival the New York Yankees. Down three games to none, the Red Sox were down by a run and facing elimination when Roberts entered the game as a pinch runner. It would be his defining moment as a ballplayer.
Roberts related how he had received some sage advice from someone with whom he had a mentor-student relationship, someone who knew a thing or two about base stealing: former Dodgers great Maury Wills.
“I remember being on Vero Beach (the site of the Dodgers’ former spring training facility), he and I on the backfield, in his little raspy voice saying, ‘D. R., there’s going to be a chance that everyone in the ballpark knows you’re going to steal this base, and you’ll have to steal this base and you can’t be afraid,’” Roberts recalled.
“So as I took the field in Boston in Game 4 against the Yankees . . . the one person I’m thinking about is Maury Wills. If I get thrown out, I’m thinking of Maury Wills on this shoulder and Bill Buckner on this shoulder. I don’t want to be Bill Buckner!”
A former Red Sox player, Buckner in 1986 infamously missed a grounder that led to his team’s defeat at the hands of the New York Mets in Game 6 of that year’s World Series.
Roberts stole second base on that cold Boston night, and his headfirst slide just beat a great throw from the Yankees’ catcher. Then teammate Bill Mueller singled and Roberts crossed home plate to tie the game, leading to a win that turned the series around. The BoSox would not lose another game, defeating the Yankees and then the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first World Series in 86 years.
Akasaki noted that Roberts’ game-changing steal would go on to be recognized by the Red Sox as one of the most memorable moments in the team’s history. (Editor’s Note: A clip of that play can be viewed at: http://tinyurl.com/jskl5mx.)
By 2009, however, with accumulated injuries taking their toll, Roberts would leave Major League baseball as a member of the San Francisco Giants. He would then spend the next year as a TV broadcaster with the regional New England Sports Network covering the Red Sox.
When the San Diego Padres came calling with an offer to join the front office in 2010, however, Roberts bit. But life would throw yet another forkball at him — and this time, it wasn’t a choice between sticking with baseball or not, stealing a base or not. It was life threatening: cancer.
Once again, however, Roberts made the correct choice.
As Roberts explained it, since he was rejoining the Padres, he had to get the same physical examination the players had to undergo for spring training. “There was a node that was detected here in my neck,” he said.
When the results of tests came in, Roberts was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage 2.
“Hodgkin’s lymphoma is different from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the sense that it’s quicker, but you can head it off,” Roberts explained. “Non-Hodgkin’s is slower, but it’s hard to track down. Mine was the more aggressive [form], so when you get past stage 2, it gets really, really dangerous. If I would have waited another month or two, I don’t know what my fate would have been.”
In other words, that mandatory baseball physical exam that he would not have otherwise taken probably saved him. “It worked out really well,” Roberts said.
Roberts began chemotherapy as he worked for the Padres organization as a scout, which helped him feel relevant, since that was what he had signed up to do. “Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “It was a tough part of my life.”
It turns out baseball isn’t the Dodgers manager’s only passion. Just as one of his predecessors, Tommy Lasorda, had a pasta sauce, Roberts co-owns the Red Stitch wine label, based in the Napa Valley. He said the name came from his brother-in-law, after a baseball’s red stitching.
Yes, Roberts is both a vintner and an oenophile and says his wife, Tricia, appreciates the Dave Roberts personality traits that come forth outside of baseball. He recalled how, as a member of the Dodgers, they took a trip to a winery in California’s Napa Valley.
“There was something about that place allowed me to disconnect from my reality and the stresses of work. My wife to this day still calls me ‘Napa Dave.’ When I’m in the middle of a season, she’s like, ‘God, I wish Napa Dave were here.’ When I get up there, I don’t care about the phone, baseball. I’m present is what she says.”
Now, as the Dodgers’ manager, Roberts is facing a new set of challenges. It’s still baseball and trying to win games, but it’s from a different perspective: dealing with player chemistry and egos, strategizing lineups of his team vs. opponents, keeping his players focused and motivated and so on.
“I’m an old-school baseball player, but I pride myself as a lifelong learner,” Roberts said. He said believes the Dodgers organization appreciated the honest responses to real-world management situations he gave during the interview process, and how he believes he can marry the traditions of baseball with modern-day analytics and techniques.
Meanwhile, the 2016 season is still young. The Dodgers are in second-place in the National League West behind the San Francisco Giants. Can David Ray Roberts win another World Series ring? That remains to be seen. But he has come this far by making the right choices and betting on himself. No one should be surprised if and when he does it again.