By John Perrotto
CLEVELAND -- Brian Roberts thinks back over the first 12 years of career, when he never played in a meaningful September game, and counts his good fortunes to finally be in a pennant race in the waning days of this season.
"It's a feeling of excitement to have a chance to go out and be able to make an impact in a pennant race," Roberts said. "It's something I guess at some point that I wondered if I would ever be able to do."
Then the Baltimore Orioles second baseman thinks back over much of the previous two years and counts his good fortune to be a normal human being.
Roberts has had an injury-plagued last four seasons, forced to the disabled list at various times with a herniated disc in his lower back, a sports hernia, a severe concussion, a torn labrum in his right hip and a torn right hamstring tendon that shelved him from April 5-June 29 this season.
However, nothing was like the concussion problems. For many days during a 13-month span in 2011 and 2012, Roberts wondered if he would ever heal.
Roberts' first concussion was self-inflicted during the last week of the 2010 season when he whacked himself in the batting helmet with his bat in frustration after striking out.
He felt no long-term effect from that blow, but it was a different story May 16, 2011. Roberts lined a ball back up the middle that ricocheted off Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Roberts hustled down the line and dove headfirst into the first-base bag to beat out a single.
The jolt of the landing caused a concussion so severe that he did not play in another major-league game for more than a year, returning on June 12, 2012.
He thinks back to how he nearly lost two full seasons because of concussions, and the long, slow recovery from them, and is thankful for more than just being able to bat at the top of the Orioles' lineup again.
"That was by far the worst of all my injuries," Roberts said. "With the other injuries, there was always a timetable. You'd go to the doctor and they'd say it's going to be six-to-eight weeks to recover, six-to-eight months, whatever it would be.
"With the head, there are no timetables. It's not like with another injury, where someone has had surgery before and you know how long it took them to get back on the field. While concussions are very similar, they are also very different."
Major League Baseball instituted the 7-day concussion disabled list in 2011 because players who suffer the injury don't typically need the regular 15-day DL stint to be ready to play again. However, Roberts' concussion was so severe that fogginess and sensitivity to light made it impossible for him to function at many times.
"Oh gosh, baseball was definitely in the background for a quite a while," Roberts said. "I was just trying to be a husband, trying to live a daily life, trying to be a contributing member of society, and it just got to a point where it was really, really difficult to do that.
"As much as I still wanted to play baseball again, my biggest wish was just be able to lead a normal life again. A lot of times I wondered if that would ever happen."
Until Roberts became regularly listed on the DL beginning in 2010, the question surrounding him was if he would ever play on an Orioles team good enough to qualify for the postseason.
After falling to the Cleveland Indians in the 1997 American League Championship Series, Baltimore had 14 consecutive losing seasons. The string of sub.-500 finishes began one year before the Orioles selected Roberts in the supplemental first round of the 1999 amateur draft from the University of South Carolina and didn't end until last season.
Yet Roberts was a spectator in 2012 while Baltimore celebrated a shocking turnaround that saw the Orioles go 93-69, beat the Texas Rangers in the inaugural AL wild card playoff then take the New York Yankees to the five-game limit before losing in the American League Division Series. Roberts' season started late while he recovered from a concussion and ended after 17 games because of hip surgery.
"I guess the way I would describe last season was that it was bittersweet," Roberts said. "It sounds bad but honestly it was a little of both. It was sweet from the standpoint because there was so much excitement for the organization, the city, the fans, ownership, management, the guys in the clubhouse, a lot of people who had been through it as long as I have or longer.
"On the other hand, I felt a little bitter that the opportunity had finally arrived and I could only sit and watch. As a professional athlete, there's nothing you want more than to be out there competing, especially in the most meaningful games possible. It was hard not to be on the field."
Roberts has had yet another season interrupted by injury this year -- his fourth in a row -- but is hopeful of finally making his postseason debut next month. The Orioles entered play Wednesday standing fourth in the six-team scramble for the two wild cards, 5 ½ games behind the Oakland Athletics and 3 games in back of the Tampa Bay Rays. The New York Yankees were a half-game ahead of the Orioles while the Cleveland Indians were a half-game behind and the Kansas City Royals were 1 ½ games back.
It is a much different September from the six years from 2004-09 when Roberts was healthy enough to earn two All-Star Game berths while leading the AL in doubles twice and stolen bases once. During that span, the Orioles finished third once in the five-team AL East, fourth three times and fifth twice, never getting closer to .500 than six games in 2004 and falling all the way to 34 games under in 2009.
"It's definitely harder when the games are a lot less meaningful," Roberts said. "It's hard to describe. You're still competing every day. You're still trying to succeed. You still have that motivation to do well but it's such a team game and it's hard when you're team is out of it. It's such more difficult to play when you don't have anything to pay for."
Roberts had chances to escape the Orioles. He could have forced the Orioles' hand to trade him to a contender in exchange for a package of prospects and he certainly could have eventually became a free agent and sold himself to the highest bidder on the open market.
Yet Roberts liked it in Baltimore and he signed a four-year, $40-million contract just before the start of the awful 2009 season. Roberts was born with a heart condition and the Hospital for Children at the University of Maryland is his favorite charity. He holds an annual fundraiser at the ESPN Zone in Baltimore on the hospital's behalf each August.
"The most important thing was not only the organization been loyal to me, the fans have always been great to me and I've always looked at Baltimore as home," Roberts said. "It's a place my family and I have really embraced. We enjoy it there.
"I thought we eventually would have a chance to win. You might go somewhere with a $200-million payroll and that might improve your odds to get to the World Series, but it's still no guarantee that you'll actually get there. There was always something appealing to playing all my career in one place, to be able to establish ties and try to make an impact in the community."
It seems that Roberts has almost made more of an impact on the community than the Orioles since his contract went into effect in 2010. He has played in just 170 of a possible 617 games because of the string of injuries.
"It's remarkable what Brian has endured," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I don't think there a lot people who could go through what he has gone through and still be playing. He has persevered through a lot more misfortune than anyone should."
Roberts admits the thoughts of retirement occasionally crept into his mind but he never came close to acting on that impulse. But like his love of the Orioles, his love for playing baseball is strong.
"There are multiple factors for staying. First and foremost is my faith. I really prayed about it a lot and talked to a lot of people about it. I never had a sense of peace about it being my time to walk away. I still thought there was going to be an opportunity for me to play again.
"Trust me, there a lot of days when the thought crossed my mind and I had to do a lot of soul searching because I was frustrated and thinking I might be at the end of my career but it always came to be thinking the best thing I could do was honor my contract and work hard to get back."
Roberts stuck it out and savoring every moment of his first pennant race at 35.
"Everyone is happy Brian is a part of this," Showalter said. "It means a lot to him and it means a lot to the entire organization."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.