Father's Day is more than a month away, but why wait until mid-June to learn more about 2005's most improved hitter, Brian Roberts?
For those who don't know, Brian is the son of former University of North Carolina baseball coach Mike Roberts. When Brian was still nursing, Mike took over as the Tar Heels' coach and led them to a third-place finish at the College World Series in 1978. The following summer, on a family vacation, baby Brian contracted pneumonia, which produced a heart defect that required open-heart surgery when he was just 5 years old. By then, B.J. Surhoff was playing for the Tar Heels, and all he remembers is that one spring, the little kid who was hanging around all the time wasn't there anymore.
Despite the setback and lack of stamina, little Brian returned to hanging out with his dad's team the following season, watching the likes of Surhoff, Scott Bradley, Walt Weiss, and later Scott Bankhead and Paul Shuey. Eventually, Roberts joined them in the UNC record books as college freshman of the year in 1997 and ACC player of the year in 1998, setting school records for hits and steals in a season.
When Mike Roberts was let go after 21 seasons in Chapel Hill after that 1998 season, Brian transferred to South Carolina, where in 1999 he again led the nation in steals. The Orioles drafted Brian Roberts in the first round. His dad went on to coach at UNC-Asheville and currently coaches the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape Cod League. A former All-ACC catcher, Mike Roberts is a master at what it takes to have stolen base success. He even hired the Carolina track coach to work with Brian in his collegiate days.
So how much of Brian's hard-earned success in 2005, seven years after he last played under his father, is still owed to his upbringing? During a recent rain delay in Boston, we talked about it.
Clubhouse Confidential: "How has your relationship with your father changed over time as you developed as a ballplayer?"
Brian Roberts: "Greatly. ... He was my dad, but he was also my coach, 100 percent, all the way, from day one until probably a couple of years ago, and it was difficult at times. Anybody who's had the father-son/coach-dad relationship knows how it can be good at times and it can be hard at times. When we were in college, I think it helped a lot because we finally got to be around each other more than we probably were for a while when I was in high school. ... But then when I left and went to pro ball, that was when it got kind of hard because he still wanted to coach a lot. And he wasn't around me that much, so he didn't really ... it's hard ... I know where he's coming from, because when I struggled, he hurt for me and he wanted to try and help, but at that point I was just kind of frustrated with the whole dad/coach thing. And it got to the point where I said, 'Dad, I just want you to enjoy this. Enjoy my career. You helped me get here, now kind of let me go on my own and see what happens.' "
Clubhouse Confidential: "Did that end it or are there still times when he ...?"
Roberts: (laughs) "It took a long time. A lot of conversations. You know, I think it takes time to change any relationship, whatever it might be. And when you have somebody who cares that much about you like your dad does, it makes it that much more difficult. But, it's gotten a lot better over the last couple of years and myself getting a chance to play every day, and go through ups and downs. I mean, he played pro ball, so he knows a little bit about what it's all about. But you switch from college and playing 60 games to go into 160 ... when you're in college, you don't go through the 0-for-15s very often, or ever. I was fortunate. I didn't go through a whole lot of that in college, so he got frustrated, I got frustrated and it kind of strained our relationship for a while. But it's working now, where he enjoys watching me play and we can just have a dad/son relationship."
Clubhouse Confidential: "Was that tough growing up that you felt like he always related to you and you always related to him in terms of baseball?"
Roberts: "I was on Cal Ripken's show the other day, and he expressed some of the same interests. I mean his dad was his coach in the big leagues, so I think any time your dad has been a coach and it's in his blood and that's what he loves, that's what it's going to be for a long time. I still go to him, but for the most part I said, 'OK, this is a time in my life where I want to develop a better relationship personally with my dad.' It's not worth it at this point because I'm surrounded by great coaches and great veterans, like when Cal was here, and so many other guys that you can lean on for help. I know what my dad would tell me by heart. I could recite everything he was going to tell me. I just said, 'You don't have to tell me, I already know.'"
Clubhouse Confidential: "I know you were very young when it happened, but what do you recall of the time you went through open-heart surgery, and your relationship then, and how it may have changed things?"
Roberts: "Yeah, I was only 5, so I don't remember a lot about it. One of the memories I have is being wheeled off into the operating room and how hard that was for myself and my parents. I can remember holding on to both of them crying and just not wanting to leave because I probably didn't comprehend what was going on with the surgery at that point, obviously. But my parents did, sure, and any time you send a child into an operation, especially open-heart surgery at age 5, it's a difficult thing. I think he learned at that point that life was more important than anything else, especially with your children. The most important thing is that your child's healthy, and so to get through that, it probably helped a lot."
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major-league baseball coverage.