He made a trip to the top of the baseball world once, one that truly began for him and the 2004 Red Sox with a trip around the bases, in the bottom of the ninth in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series. Now Dave Roberts tries to do the same thing as the manager of the Dodgers. But if Roberts knows one thing by now, it is how fragile and unpredictable these trips can be in October. Baseball history began to change one Sunday night in October in '04 when he stole second base when he was pinch-running for Kevin Millar. Baseball history began to change in that moment. So did Roberts' baseball life.
"I think about it quite often," Roberts said on Thursday afternoon. "I think about what happened that night, and over the next three nights, obviously. I think about the opportunities it's created for me, and how it changed my life."
The great Mariano Rivera needed three outs at Fenway Park to get the Yankees a sweep against the Red Sox and get them to the World Series. But he walked Millar, afraid that Millar could tie the game with one swing, one ball over the Green Monster. Roberts went in to run for Millar. Theo Epstein had traded for him that July. Had gotten Roberts from the Los Angeles Dodgers, as a matter of fact. Theo knew Roberts gave him some depth in the outfield. But he knew he could steal the Red Sox a base. Now the whole world knew that Roberts was going to try to steal, steal the base he was on the Red Sox playoff roster that year to steal.
"I will tell you this," Roberts says all this time later. "I was ready for that moment. We all were. Trust me, we knew we were good that year. But there was so much unselfishness on that team. There were guys who were ready to sacrifice. I know, because I was one of those guys. I understood my role."
He pauses and says, "So much of what happened to me then informs what we're trying to do now with the Dodgers."
He went on the first pitch to Bill Mueller. Jorge Posada thought he had thrown him out. Derek Jeter, who put the tag on Roberts after reaching slightly across his body to take Posada's throw, tried to sell the out at second. But Roberts knew and Jeter knew that Roberts had beaten the throw. The rest really is his history, Red Sox history, Yankee history, baseball history. Mueller then singled home Roberts to tie the game. The Red Sox won it later on a David Ortiz home run and didn't stop winning -- without another loss that October -- until they had won their first World Series since 1918.
Roberts never had an at-bat in that ALCS. But he became a Red Sox immortal by making it to second base that night. Maybe there is a more famous stolen base in baseball history. Considering the circumstances, and the two teams involved, name one.
Everybody knew, even then, what kind of bright, serious, thoughtful baseball man Roberts was. Everybody knew, even then, that he ought to be a manager in the big leagues someday. Now he is, with the Dodgers, 61-29 at the All-Star break and, along with the Astros, one of the two best teams in the game right now. And maybe the best team in another October for Roberts. A winner keeps winning, this time with an iconic franchise across the country from Fenway, the one he left once, on his way to being a part of the most famous comeback baseball has ever seen or known.
The Red Sox were loaded that year, not just with talent, but with grinders. Now Roberts has the same kind of team in L.A. He has young stars like Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger. He has Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet and one of the greatest who has ever lived. But Roberts has a good, tough, late bloomer like Justin Turner, too, fresh off a trip to the All-Star Game. He has an old baseball professional like Chase Utley. For now, it is working for all of them, and for their manager. The Red Sox had waited 86 years to win the World Series. Dodgers fans feel as if they've waited at least that long, even though their team last won it all in '88.
"I hear about it every day," Roberts says. "Every single day. World Series or bust. That's what the fans want, and that's what we want."
He did some broadcasting after he retired as a player. He worked in baseball operations for the Padres, became their first-base coach, finally became a bench coach for Bud Black, now managing the Rockies and, thus, managing against Roberts in the National League West.
"I was still a pretty young guy when I retired," Roberts says. "I knew I wanted to stay active in the game, just wasn't sure how, or where. But the one thing that broadcasting taught me, and with no disrespect meant to broadcasters, is that I didn't want to do that for a living. I just wanted to be on the field. I wanted to teach. And before long, I was working for, and with, Buddy [Black]. I can't properly describe how valuable that experience was for me. For one thing, I got to talk pitching with him for five years. But it was even more than that. He taught me so much about managing players, managing the media, communicating with players. He set me up for everything that has happened to me since."
Roberts talks now about the great Kershaw, and how he believes the two of them have finally built up trust; how he believes now that when he takes Kershaw out of a game before he wants to be taken out, that he is honestly acting in the pitcher's best interest and the team's best interest. He talks about how Turner, in his words, "just finally figured it out." He talks about how much Corey Seager has learned from Utley, and how the kid's desire to win supersedes everything else with him.
"All the things that have made Chase Utley who he is," Roberts says, "are what will make Corey a superstar."
The manager of the Dodgers talks about Cody Bellinger, his home run kid, and how, in the words of his manager, "he's a perfect blend of blue-collar DNA with an incredible skill set." When I ask him if he thought Bellinger would come this far and this fast, Roberts says he actually wasn't sure about that.
"But I'll tell you this," he says. "From the start, I found myself thinking just how right that uniform looked on him. How right he looked being on a Major League field."
Now Bellinger, who turned 22 on Thursday, has moved to first base from the outfield because Adrian Gonzalez is hurt, and the Dodger batting order is organized around him and around the 23-year-old Seager, even as Roberts says that he believes Turner is as much the "glue" on the 2017 Dodgers as anybody; who is the kind of grinder that Dave Roberts once was.
"We have a clear vision of who we are, and who we want to be," Roberts says of his team. "Listen, we know where we play. We understand the market. Heck, we understand how amazing the climate is. We understand the whole thing about Hollywood. But when I talk to Andrew Friedman [president of baseball operations for the Dodgers], we both know what we want. We want baseball players. We want that blue-collar DNA to permeate the entire clubhouse. We want guys who are going to play with high intensity, and who would have the same kind of intensity if they were playing in L.A. or New York or Philly or on the moon."
He is on his way to the airport on this day, a trip across the country to Miami to start the second half of the season. It is, of course, part of a much longer trip than that for Roberts, one that really began between first and second at Fenway a long time ago.
"It will always be fun to show my appreciation for that moment," Roberts says. "But the only moment that matters for me now is the next inning, the next game, the next day."
And then, as if remembering one last time that he went on the first pitch Rivera threw to Mueller that night in '04, Dave Roberts says, "I'm still taking things one pitch at a time."