- Take an exclusive look at how the 2016 NL Manager of the Year runs his team and gets ready for a spring training game with this behind-the-scenes tour of his long day in Arizona.
A version of this story will appear in the March 27, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
It is 7:03 in the chilly gloaming of an Arizona morning, but Dave Roberts’s smile is at full luminosity as he walks through the doors of the Dodgers’ spring training complex.
“Sorry I’m late,” says the Los Angeles manager, who was all of three minutes tardy. “Stopped for coffee.”
Roberts is about to begin just one of his 205 scheduled days in uniform, after pitchers and catchers reported on Feb. 15. This one will include the Dodgers’ spring training opener, and Roberts shared it with SI—granting exclusive access, from private meetings with coaches and players to a seat next to him in the dugout.
With the game’s long season, no person represents a sports franchise in more ways and more often than a baseball manager. As information has made stars of front office executives, the manager has become the conduit between theory and practice, numbers and heartbeats. Roberts, 44, is the template of the modern skipper, and not just because last season, as a rookie, he was named National League Manager of the Year after leading L.A. to the NL West title despite a record 606 pitching changes and 28 players on the disabled list. A cancer survivor who’s unfailingly optimistic, a UCLA graduate with a history degree who’s at ease working with one of MLB’s most intellectual and hands-on front offices, Roberts is well-equipped to excel at the manager’s most important role: fostering a positive workplace environment.
Despite being a 28th-round pick, Roberts forged a 10-year career as an outfielder. Upon beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2010, he returned as a Padres first base coach. In 2015, Roberts interviewed with the Mariners for their managing job, but lost out to Scott Servais. Friedman reached out to Roberts. He was considered a long shot. “I had no history with him,” Friedman said. “Jerry raved about him. We have a fairly grueling interview process. He absolutely nailed it. It was like a student who gets the questions before the exam.”
Friedman hired the son of an African-American Marine father and a Japanese mother, the Dodgers’ first minority manager. Roberts brought L.A. to within two wins of the team’s first pennant since 1988. “Which comes first, winning or chemistry?” Roberts says. “I think it’s chemistry. Last year we fell eight games back, but came back because of chemistry. Spring training is big because that’s when chemistry starts.”
Roberts meets in his office with Tarrik Brock, the baserunning coordinator, for a report about bunting drills from the previous day.
As players arrive, Roberts enthusiastically shouts hello to each one as they pass his door. “Hey, B-Mac! Hey, Tolesy!” he calls out to pitcher Brandon McCarthy and outfielder Andrew Toles.
Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt visits the manager’s office to go over plans for the game today against the White Sox.
Roberts sits for an interview outside with L.A. broadcaster Jim Hill, but only after interviewing Hill himself. For example: “How long are you in town for?”
In his office, door closed, Roberts studies his lineup card. “My quiet time alone,” he says. “We’re starting with Kersh [Clayton Kershaw], then Alex Wood, Fabio Castillo and Josh Ravin, another guy with a big arm. This early, it’s mostly about the pitching. The hitting will come around.”
Next door, Roberts meets with coaches. Bullpen catcher Rob Flippo outlines the day’s schedule. Roberts then asks coaches if they have a joke of the day. None do. He turns to Maury Wills, the 84-year-old former Dodgers shortstop.
“Maury, you got a joke for us?
“Well, I had one,” Wills says, “but this group is kind of young, so I’m going to pass.”
Roberts holds his daily team meeting in the clubhouse. It’s a time to build bonds. Prospects Alex Verdugo and Willie Calhoun were given a homework assignment: Chart the birthplaces of every player on the roster. Seven players had also been assigned to cover a rodeo as news reporters.
Roberts checks in with Verdugo, who has a map mounted on posterboard.
“Alex, you doing well with that?” Roberts asks. “What’s the workload with you and Calhoun on that? 50–50? 60–40? 90–10?”
“Doc,” Honeycutt calls out, “did you see his board?”
“Yeah, that’s impressive. I like the detail. ‘Dodgers’ in gold—24-carat magic. Speaking of 24-carat magic, where are we at with Rich Hill?” Roberts has been encouraging Hill to start an Instagram account. “So what are we, public or private?” Roberts asks the veteran pitcher.
“I’m going public.”
“He’s going public!”
Somebody shouts, “Is an IPO date going to be announced?”
Roberts calls on prospect Cody Bellinger. “Belly, stay on him. Make sure he goes public or private today. And have him get Kenta [Maeda] for his followers. Globalized IPO. Richie, that’s awesome.”
Roberts turns to the next bit of attention: getting to know a new player.
“Let’s meet Brett Eibner,” Roberts says.
Eibner, an outfielder, stands and says he played at Arkansas, and last year he was with the Royals and A’s.
“Brett, Arkansas … what’s that thing, pig sooey?”
“Woo, pig,” Eibner says.
“Who knows what woo pig is? Calling out the hogs? Why don’t you call out the hogs for everyone, and I want to hear it good.”
“Woooo … woooo…. Woo pig!”
“Brett, let’s go! From the beginning. One more time.”
Eibner, with gusto, belts out, “Woo … woo … woo … Arkansas Razorbacks!”
“Yeah! Okay, give us an idea of off the field. Away from the field, what do you like to do? Hobbies?”
“Well, because I am recently engaged...”
“Thank you. I had a double whammy with Valentine’s Day and my fiancée’s birthday was the day after.”
“So what did you get her?”
“She’s a big Starburst gum fan. I got her a big box of that. Her birthday was the big gift: a Siberian husky."
Somebody shouts, “Did the gum go over well?”
“It did. She’s about halfway through the box already.”
Says coach Bob Geren, “Get her a solid dental plan?”
Back in his office, Roberts phones his wife, Tricia, awakening her. “Just wanted to call you before I went out on the field,” he says.
Roberts does an interview for the team’s flagship radio station, WTKK.
Roberts holds his morning media session outside.
The team is on the field for its workout. Roberts shakes hands with players or pats them on the shoulder or back. “I put my hands on everybody every day,” he says. “I don’t know where I got it from. I just do.”
Roberts walks to a field with minor leaguers. “I have to give the younger guys some love,” he says.
Players are taking batting practice, including shortstop Corey Seager, third baseman Justin Turner and rightfielder Yasiel Puig. Roberts speaks with all of them.
“Yasiel, we have a good relationship. If I have to step in, I will. Showing up late? That doesn’t fly, and he knows it.”
Puig rolls over on a pitch, a grounder to third base.
“Five!” Turner calls out. To get Puig to hit more balls in the air, Turner has Puig do five pushups every time he hits a ground ball.
“First and third, one out,” Turner calls out. Puig rolls over again, a bouncing ball to third.
Friedman visits with Roberts on the field. They talk about lefthander Hyun-jin Ryu, who has pitched only one game in the past two years due to shoulder trouble and had a bullpen session that morning. “Ryu looked good,” Roberts says.
“That’s like an old pair of favorite jeans that you thought were lost but then were found,” says Friedman.
Roberts signs autographs on his way back to the clubhouse. He signs caps, helmets, baseballs and a baby—on the back of a onesie.
While Roberts is meeting with Friedman and Dodgers vice president Lon Rosen, Magic Johnson calls. “I can’t wait to pour champagne on you,” says Johnson, who has been a part owner since 2012.
Kershaw mutters on the four of his 12 deliveries that don’t go exactly where he intended, including a changeup, the one pitch he never has mastered. “He’ll be thinking about that pitch all day,” Roberts says.
“Way to stay with it, Pat!” Roberts says, complimenting umpire Pat Hoberg on calling a low slider to Turner. Roberts has no problem complaining about pitches during the season and sometimes reacts based on a sign from his catcher. If the catcher believes the umpire missed a pitch, he will give Roberts a signal, such as touching his chest protector or the back of his helmet. “Replay is great because there’s nothing to worry about,” Roberts says. “The ball/strike call is the last place we can argue.”
Roberts begins to pull starters. His lineup card is intentionally chaotic. He rarely puts the reserve player into the same spot as the starter he replaces. “You think through where you want guys hitting,” he says. “Games like this make it easier to run a National League game during the season.”
Unlike most games last season, Roberts doesn’t leave the dugout. His pitching changes are all scripted. Next is Castillo, a 28-year-old who has pitched in Mexico and Korea. “He threw the ball well in winter league, so we’ll see,” Roberts says.
With L.A. up 5–3, Roberts asks a pitcher wearing number 90, with no name on the back, to close. “Don’t ask me about him,” Roberts says, “because I don’t know much.” The reliever is 30-year-old lefty Edward Paredes, who came from minor league camp and closes out the game on two strikeouts.
“One-and-oh!” Roberts says as he shakes hands. “The first of many.”
Roberts meets with the media. Asked about Kershaw, he says, “He’s probably going to lose sleep over that one changeup.”
Roberts reviews the game with his coaches. They agree that Castillo and Paredes deserve longer looks. First base coach George Lombard points out how Eibner, playing rightfield, hustled full tilt toward the foul line to back up the throw on grounders, a habit coaches are trying to impress upon Puig. “Guys, it was a good clean game,” Roberts says. “Great job.”
Roberts has one more meeting, with Friedman and Honeycutt. His day has been nonstop, with only five-minute breaks for breakfast and lunch at his desk. Behind his desk is a bottle of Red Stitch wine. Roberts, along with his former teammate Rich Aurilia, is a part owner of the Cardiff, Ca., vineyard. A manager doesn’t have much time for diversions, but Roberts won’t abandon his passion.
“It’s wine,” he says. “Wine and food and family. I can’t wait to get that glass of wine, and it allows me to reflect on the day. I talked to my wife one time. It’s like this from 7 a.m. to right now, and it’s not over. And you have to be on all day. But you know what? It’s great. I’d rather be nowhere else in the world.”