PEORIA, Ariz. -- The treasures of Dave Roberts' baseball career rest in a special locker at his Southern California home, arranged almost as they would be in a clubhouse. He has his UCLA jersey hanging in there, his Pan-American Games silver medal from 1999, plus jerseys signed by an array of opponents and former teammates, from Derek Jeter to Albert Pujols.
He acted as a curator throughout his 10 years as a major league player. When he played for the Giants, he got Willie Mays to sign a jersey for him. It hangs apart from the rest of the collection, mounted on a wall.
It's not the most valuable item, though. Other people own autographed Mays jerseys. No one else has the spikes that Dave Roberts wore the night he stole the base that stole a pennant, the night he danced on a curse's grave.
Bottom of ninth inning at Fenway Park, just past midnight, Yankees leading 4-3 and three outs from a four-game sweep of the 2004 ALCS. Kevin Millar walks. Roberts enters as pinch-runner. He has appeared in one game the last two weeks. He will not come to the plate at all in the postseason. He won't need a bat to change baseball history.
The spikes now sit in that special locker in Roberts' sports room, 3,000 miles from where a baseball fan would hope to find them. Somehow, when the National Baseball Hall of Fame collected artifacts after the 2004 World Series, honoring the first Red Sox championship in 86 years, none of Roberts' gear rated the trip to Cooperstown.
That could change soon.
After Curt Schilling sold his bloody sock, the other icon of the 2004 ALCS, for $92,000 last month, I remembered a conversation with Roberts from six years earlier. Barry Bonds was busy chasing Hank Aaron then, with authenticators and a Cooperstown rep in tow, and I asked Roberts what had happened to his spikes. He said he had set them aside after the '04 season, as part of his collection and family heirlooms for his children, daughter Emmerson and son Cole. He seemed touched that I thought they deserved a place in the Hall of Fame.
A follow-up visit with Roberts, now the Padres' first base coach, at spring training last weekend yielded a go-ahead to see if the Hall would be interested all these years later. He had a few questions. He wanted to know what would happen to the spikes there, whether he could donate just one and save the other for his kids and whether a loan would be acceptable, in case his family did not want to surrender them permanently.
"It's really the ultimate honor, and my kids would get to see them if they went to Cooperstown, so I'd have to consider it,'' he said.
And if the Hall would accept just one? "I think that would be a no-brainer, wouldn't it?''
At first base, Roberts hears coach Lynn Jones say something about a bunt, thinking third-base coach Dale Sveum has the sign on. But manager Terry Francona had winked at him when he left the dugout, and Roberts knew what that meant. He didn't come in to wait for someone else's sacrifice. Mariano Rivera is on the mound, and Bill Mueller, one of the few Red Sox who can hit the Yankees closer, is at the plate. "Hey, I'm going to steal this base,'' Roberts recalls saying to Jones. "I'm going to steal. So they have to take the bunt sign off.'' Jones, who has been working with Roberts on his jumps throughout the playoffs, keeping him sharp for a moment just like this, says: "Do what you do.''
A few hours after talking to Roberts, I ran into Jeff Idelson, the Hall president since 2008, during batting practice for a World Baseball Classic game in Phoenix. It was serendipitous, eliminating the need for a phone call. He said he planned to watch Team USA that night with two special guests: Rickey Henderson and his wife, Pam. More serendipity. Idelson was already in a stolen-base frame of mind.
"Certainly, what he accomplished is worthy of recognition,'' he said. "… As someone growing up in Boston, I was excited about it. What he did really was the turning point of their season.''
He said he'd have to chat with Roberts in more detail if he favored a loan or a gift of a single spike. Generally, the Hall receives only pairs of spikes, although the Giants' Aubrey Huff gave just one from the 2010 World Series.
After the 2004 Series, Schilling donated his spikes, the Hall's preference because they were inscribed with "K ALS,'' a message about defeating Lou Gehrig's disease. A few weeks later, Schilling offered the bloody sock on loan. "We accepted it and it was on display until recently,'' Idelson said later, in an email follow-up. "Shondra's parents [Schilling's in-laws] hand-delivered it to us.''
I reported back to Roberts and double-checked that writing a column wouldn't be pushing the issue unreasonably. After all, he underwent treatment for lymphoma in 2010, and though doctors have pronounced him healthy, the spikes might represent financial security for his family someday. It's too easy for an outsider to romanticize a Cooperstown donation or dismiss Schilling's $92,000 as peanuts for a former ballplayer.
Roberts started smiling before I finished, then said very calmly: "I would never sell those spikes. Ever.''
He said he'd check with his family, then get back to me. He texted on Wednesday: "It's a go.''
Rivera throws over to first to hold Roberts. Does it again. Sooo close, but Roberts is safe. Third time, nothing. He holds the ball on the mound. Roberts has played this game once before with Rivera and studied videotape. He knows what to expect as he watches Rivera hold and hold and hold. "It felt like an eternity, but you just have to wait him out,'' Roberts recalls. As he stretches out his lower body on the base-path, he looks spring-loaded.
Roberts and Idelson will still have to talk about a donation, work out details. Idelson said he planned to visit San Diego this summer to meet with the Padres' new owners, and he and Roberts could probably meet in person then. Roberts would like to know more about the possible display, since no items go on permanent exhibit in Cooperstown.
The possibilities seem vast. An "Autumn Glory'' exhibit, dedicated to the postseason, would be an ideal venue. Any tribute to the stolen base would merit a star turn from the Roberts' artifact. Only Jackie Robinson's steal of home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series can top Roberts' theft for impact on a championship.
Reggie Jackson scoring on the front end of a double steal for the A's in the deciding fifth game of 1972 ALCS should be a contender, too, especially since he tore his hamstring on the play. But that theft came in the second inning, and he had teammate Mike Epstein going to second as a decoy. Roberts had to do it all on his own, after it became clear to everyone in the park what he intended.
"When I was starting out with the Dodgers, Maury Wills was working with me on a back field in Vero Beach. And he told me: "you're going to have an opportunity someday to steal a base someday when everyone in the stadium knows you're going to steal second,' '' Roberts recalled, "'and you can't be afraid to steal that base.' And when I got out there, I was like 'This is my moment.' And I was lucky. I was on a team with a lot of great, great players, and if we'd lost that day and the Yankees had won the series, no one was going to come down on me.''
Roberts takes off, his feet almost shoving him forward. He dives head-first into second. Jorge Posada makes a great throw, and from certain angles, it might appear that Jeter tags Roberts out. But Joe West, the umpire, has positioned himself perfectly to see the tag and not be fooled by Jeter's crafty swipe. "I give him all the credit for that,'' Roberts says. He is safe. The Red Sox are about to be safe for another night. After Mueller singles him home with the tying run, Roberts leaps to his feet and slaps his hands together, effortlessly pirouetting in the air.
The steal does not lack for recognition. It never will. Padres prospects want to hear Roberts relive the moment that unraveled Rivera. When Joe Torre saw him years later, before a Dodgers-Giants game, they winked at each other and Torre wagged his index finger at the bandit who cost him a seventh Yankees pennant. "He said 'I remember you,'"Roberts recalled with a little laugh.
The steal dimmed the lights around many other great moments in that ALCS, and in the World Series sweep of St. Louis. Even Roberts' theatrics on the bases in Game 5, which should ride shotgun to the Game 4 steal, are largely forgotten. Down a run in the eighth inning, with elimination hovering again, Roberts came in for Millar one more time. Tom "Flash'' Gordon, on the mound for the Yankees, could not focus on Trot Nixon, the batter.
In a lineup full of sluggers, in the era of the long ball, Roberts had become a disruptive force. "You could see Flash being really quick to the plate,'' Roberts remembered. Nixon slapped a single, and Roberts, running on the pitch, reached third. He scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly.
"Flash's son, Dee, came up to me a few springs ago, and told me: 'Man I never saw my dad as nervous as he was when you were on first base in that Game 5,'" Roberts said.
That run was the final play of Roberts' Red Sox career. A deadline acquisition from the Dodgers that year, he had appeared in just 48 Boston games. Yet when the team commissioned an art project for Fenway Park featuring bricks with the handprints of 35 players throughout Red Sox history, Roberts' 48-game tenure placed him in the company of Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Pesky, Carlton Fisk, Jason Varitek…
Only one thing set him apart from the longtime Sox. When the artists came to the Padres' camp, they didn't take a mold of Roberts' hands. They asked him to step in the plaster.
So even if his spikes don't find their way to Cooperstown, they will always have their own fame. But they belong there for so many reasons. They represent fearlessness, the wonderful mischief of baseball, the grain of possibility in an apparently lost cause and the startling potency of a sport's marginalized weapon. (MLB stolen-base totals from 2003 to 2005 dipped lower than in any strike year since 1975, when six fewer teams existed.)
They stand for marginalized players, too. Roberts accepted his place on the bench, acted as cheerleader for teammates like Johnny Damon, whose bat vanished early in the ALCS. And he waited. And waited. And then he got the call and the wink from Francona, the freedom to do his thing. He says he will be forever grateful. So will Boston, because Roberts turned out to be that player who, given just a small moment, had prepared completely for it, instead of sulking over all the missing innings, and he made it into something extraordinary.