Saturday, October 22, 2011

Mr., Mr. Roberts ???

Baseball fans:  When you hear the name Dave Roberts what comes to your mind ?  For most of us it's probably the "well traveled" outfielder with the lightning fast speed who stole game 4 of the 2004 ALCS for Boston during their incredible comeback against the Yankees.  For those of us who have an older/more obscure memory we think of the Dave Roberts of the San Diego Padres during the 1970's.  Now of course when we think like that the next question pops up:  The pitcher Dave Roberts or the player Dave Roberts ?

You see by the early 1970's the Padres had cornered the market in two things:  losing season and players named Dave Roberts.  The first Dave Roberts was a pitcher who played for the franchise during their first 3 seasons (1969-1971).  He actually had some good seasons, but the team couldn't score any runs (what expansion team can ?), so he consistently sported a losing record with a low ERA.  By 1972 he was dealt to Astros, which was just a bit before the "other" Dave Roberts was drafted #1 out of the University of Oregon on June 6, 1972.  Not wasting any time the Padres put their "new" Dave Roberts into uniform and pressed him into action with the big club the day after the draft.  Today we would call this "rushing a player", which is usually followed by the comment "ruining the kid".  Back in 1972 it was know as, "replacing the lack of talent on an expansion team".  Those '72 Padres were not exactly the love-able losers like the '62 Mets were.  They were boring, drab and wore the ugliest uniforms in the majors.  They had one true star, Nate Colbert, and a bunch of guys who couldn't hit and barely could field.

Roberts went 0-3 in his first big league action.  In fact he didn't hit all that much the rest of the way.  He finished his partial rookie campaign splitting time between 2nd base and 3rd base, while hitting .244 with 5 homers.  The following season he started off even worse.  By the end of April he was hitting .083, which earned him a ticket to the Padres Triple A affiliate in Hawaii.  Talk about punishment.  Being "demoted" to Hawaii.  I bet if the Padres thought this through they might have realized that a minor league team would do better to be placed in a less exotic place than the tropical paradise of Hawaii.  To say the 50th state suited Roberts well would be an understatement.  In a month of action he was batting a crisp .375 and was summoned back to the big club when 3rd baseman Dave Hilton shocked the world, ok he shocked no one, by bottoming out with an average slightly north of the Mendoza line.  Roberts was hot in Hawaii and remained hot in San Diego.  As the Padres regular 3rd baseman he finished the season with a .286 average, 22 homers and 64 RBI's.  The sky was the limit for the 1972 #1 pick, or so it seemed.  1973 would be the high point in Roberts' career.

He would spend the next few years shuttling back and forth between San Diego and Hawaii never duplicating the success he had of 1973.  To his credit he was not about to shrivel up and quit.  When the organization decided to convert him into a catcher, he embraced the challenge and learned how to ply his trade with the "tools of ignorance".  He started the 1977 season on the expansion Blue Jays roster.  After converting him into a catcher, the genius Padre management signed free agent catcher Gene Tenace, which made Roberts expendable.  The result:  A trip to Toronto.  The with a twist of luck and fate, Tenace couldn't really catch much, so he was shuffled over to 1st and the Padres bought Roberts' contract back from the Blue Jays.

Regular playing time didn't come and by the end of the '78 season Roberts earned his free agency and migrated to the Texas Rangers, which was not exactly a strategic move on his behalf.  The Rangers had both Jim Sundberg and John Ellis ahead of Roberts on the depth chart.  Sundberg was an All-Star catcher who played about 150 games, which didn't leave much playing time for anyone else willing to put on a mask and some shin guards.  Due to this untenable situation Roberts split time between Triple A Tucson and Texas.  When he was with the big club he hit .264 and began filling in at just about every position.  Roberts righted a bad situation by becoming the team's utility man extraordinaire.  In 1980 he played in 37 games at third base, 33 at shortstop, 22 at catcher, five in right field, and four each at first and second base for Texas.  Roberts basically played every position except Pitcher or Shortstop.  His batting average wasn't exceptionally high (.238), but he did cash in with 10 homers.

For those hoping for the "happy ending", the one where I write that Roberts found his niche and remained with the Rangers as a world class utility ball player for the better part of the next decade, that ending isn't going to be written.  1981 saw Roberts move over to the Astros and play even less than he did in 1979.  1982 saw him take his skills to South Philly with much the same result.  By 1983 he was injured.  The Phillies saw no reason to invest any time or effort into a broken down utility man and Roberts was cut loose, thus ending his 10 year up and down career in the big leagues.

David Wayne Roberts, not to be confused with David Arthur Roberts never achieved the success predicted for him back when he was a #1 pick in the 1972 draft.  Did the Padres rush him along too soon or was he just another 1st round bust ?  We may never know the answer to that question, and except for a handful of fans in Southern California, nobody else is probably even asking it.


  1. Roberts also ended the '81 'Divisional' Playoff by failing to see the dropped strike three and face planting as he got thrown out at first, while the commentators pooh-poohed his unprofessionalism

  2. If you want to that very same Roberts end-of-series moment, it's on YouTube now, linked to the at-bat: