In 2004, the Boston Red Sox trailed their archrivals, the New York Yankees, three games to none in the American League Championship Series. No team had ever come back from that kind of deficit, and now — down a run heading into the ninth inning of game 4 — a potential Sox comeback meant overcoming New York’s legendary closer Mariano Rivera, as well as the weight of an 86-year World Series drought. Boston’s Kevin Millar led off the ninth with a walk.
Enter Dave Roberts, pinch runner.
Sent in to run for Millar, Roberts represented the tying run. With Rivera’s first pitch, Roberts broke for second, beating Jorge Posada’s throw to Derek Jeter. Now and forever known as “The Steal,” Roberts’ bold base-running jump-started a rally that saw him scoring on Bill Mueller’s game-tying single. The Red Sox won game 4 in 12 innings, took the next three from New York, then went on to beat St. Louis in the World Series.
Taking a Chance
Fast-forward to 2015. When the Dodgers decided to replace manager Don Mattingly during the off-season, they sought a strong and experienced leader, an energetic presence who could connect with players and whose teams would do the little things to win — like steal a base in the bottom of the ninth with the season on the line.
Enter Dave Roberts, manager, Los Angeles Dodgers.
Roberts’ appointment as Mattingly’s successor made its own kind of history, with the franchise that made Bruin Jackie Robinson the first black player in Major League Baseball hiring its first minority manager. Roberts’ father is of African-American descent; his mother is Japanese.
“We moved all over as children, my sister and I, so we were around a lot of diverse people. I didn’t relate to ethnicity too much. I knew who I was, but I didn’t identify with either,” says Roberts. “As I was going through the process [of becoming L.A.’s manager], it really hit me. My father made note of it, me being the first minority manager for the Dodgers, an organization that’s storied for breaking racial barriers. It was really heavy.”
The new skipper recognizes that his background links him to a cross-section of Dodger fans on both sides of the Pacific.
“For me to be the first Japanese manager for the Dodgers, I think there’s a lot of excitement over there. I’ve talked to relatives and know how excited [Japanese fans] are, and now that we’ve signed [Japanese pitcher] Kenta Maeda, the energy and excitement for Japanese culture and the Dodgers continues to build,” says Roberts, a one-time Dodger teammate of pitcher Hideo Nomo.
“And speaking to the African-American side, to be the first African-American manager as well, it’s kind of multilayered for me. I’m friends with [Robinson’s daughter] Sharon and people who played with Jackie, like Don Newcombe. I played at Jackie Robinson Stadium. I played for UCLA and the Dodgers and was a multisport athlete. On the road, my alias is Jackie Robinson,” says Roberts. “He’s somebody that I have so much adoration for, and it’s fascinating to see the African-American culture relate and the Japanese culture relate, and the UCLA faithful relate. So all these different people, along with people from my hometown, think it’s special that I can fill this position, and so many different people can live through me.”
The Right Stuff
At his inaugural press conference as manager, Roberts used words like “grit” and “grind” when describing what he looked for in a team and its players. These are old-school baseball terms, intangible qualities that seem almost in opposition to the unemotional analytics pervasive in the game today. Roberts sees no inconsistency.
“Ultimately, the goal is to win or produce a certain amount statistically. But at the core, if you’re focused on being accountable to yourself, I think that the grinding mentality — the head-down, blue-collar mentality — goes along with the metrics,” says Roberts.
Eric Karros has a unique perspective on the hire. A fellow Bruin, one-time Dodger and now a broadcaster for Fox Sports, Karros calls the move “a good hire — maybe not a conventional one for a veteran team, but one that you can understand, given the structure of the front office, the philosophy,” he says. Neither Walter Alston nor Tommy Lasorda, two iconic managers, had managing experience at the big-league level prior to taking the reins of the Dodgers.
For Roberts, Karros predicts, “There are going to be some challenges, and I think that’s probably what appealed to management. He’s always been a guy who’s had to earn everything at every level. He’s been given nothing and has always accepted challenges and done well, whether it’s on the field or off.”
Roberts’ approach to managing the day-to-day machinations of a baseball team starts with acknowledging the sheer length of MLB’s 162-game season. That’s where the “grind” comes in.
“I’m an emotional person by nature, but I think that as a manager — given the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows of a Major League Baseball game, let alone a season — I’ll try to keep things somewhere in the middle,” Roberts says.
These are the qualities that the Dodgers front office brain trust sought when selecting a manager. “We could not be more excited about Dave,” says Dodgers president and part-owner Stan Kasten. “He’s going to bring not just expertise, but a real passion and real enthusiasm to his job, and I think the coaches he has assembled will feed off that. We expect to have a very positive, very energetic, very enthusiastic environment throughout our staff and players.”
Roberts almost didn’t play for UCLA. The son of a Marine, he had an appointment to the Air Force Academy but decided he wanted a “regular” college experience instead and met with baseball coaches, including UCLA Head Coach Gary Adams, late in the summer after graduating from high school. With no scholarships left to give, Adams offered Roberts a spot as a walk-on. Roberts says he decided that, at worst, “I’d have a great education from UCLA.” He ultimately earned a degree in history and learned an important lesson from Adams.
“He was invested in us, and he was a teacher,” Roberts says. “And so I think, for me, the caring for my players, and the will and desire to teach … I take from Coach Adams.”
Karros believes Roberts’ positive people skills will be critical.
“Dave is a personable guy, a team guy. His best strength is that he can coexist with anybody,” says Karros. “With Dave, you’re not going to hear anyone say anything bad about him, and I think that his ability to endear himself to others may be one of the qualities that appealed most to the Dodgers’ management.”
One of the things that appeals to Roberts about returning to Los Angeles is his proximity to the campus he once called home. It gives him a chance to pay closer attention to the UCLA program.
“Coach [John] Savage and his staff have done an outstanding job of developing very good college players and one of the best programs in the country, while also developing great young men,” says Roberts. “I haven’t spent a lot of time with him, but I’m hopeful that now that I’ll be in Los Angeles, we can share some more time together.”
This story has been adapted from one posted on the UCLA Magazine April 2016 website.