From creatine tospace-age contact lenses, Brian Roberts heard all the theories last year abouthow a 5'9" second baseman could possibly have 15 home runs at the All-Starbreak--he had never hit more than five in a season--and finish the season witha higher slugging percentage (.515) than Gary Sheffield. "You want to knowwhat the secret to Brian's season was?" asks rightfielder Jay Gibbons,Roberts's workout partner and next-door neighbor in Baltimore. "Hard work.I get to the ballpark early and stay late, but he's always here when I get inand still here when I leave. Pound for pound, he's the strongest guy on theteam."
Behind Roberts'spower surge the Orioles started 42--28 and held first place in the divisiondeep into June. Then came a 32--60 nosedive, which made Baltimore the firstteam since the 1978 A's to be both 14 games above .500 and 14 games below .500in the same season. In just his third year as a starter, Roberts suffered nosuch drop-off. (For the record he says that he uses creatine in the winter tohelp recover from weight training and that he tried sun-glare-reducing contactsproduced by Nike and Bausch & Lomb for a handful of games last summer.) Heled AL second basemen in on-base-percentage-plus-slugging (OPS, .903) and wassecond among leadoff hitters in OBP (.384). But his breakout season endedhorrifically on Sept. 20 when Yankees outfielder Bubba Crosby crashed into hisoutstretched left arm (the glove arm) on a play at first base, dislocatingRoberts's elbow and tearing a tendon off the bone.
"I felt likemy arm was going to fall off, so I was just trying to hold it," says thesoft-spoken 28-year-old, recalling a moment that he has avoided watching onreplay. As he walked off the Yankee Stadium field, he thought his career mightbe over. "It was devastating to have such a great season end likethat," says Roberts, who had elbow surgery in late September, "but Ijust told myself, Well, here's just one more thing you're going to have tobattle back from."
Roberts isfamiliar with adversity. As a child he suffered from a congenital heart defectthat often left him fatigued; he's been healthy since undergoing surgery at agefive. Because of his size he wasn't recruited by Division I schools out ofChapel Hill (N.C.) High--except by North Carolina, where his father, Mike, wasthe coach.
In January,during four months of intense rehab at a training facility in Tempe, Ariz.,Roberts had to learn how to catch again; a friend would stand a few feet fromhim and toss him baseballs underhanded. "I felt like I was five yearsold--everything was new to me again," says Roberts, who took his firstbatting practice swings on March 12 and appeared in his first spring game ninedays later.
"When I wason vacation in Mexico [in December], I was too embarrassed to go to the workoutroom in my hotel because I could barely lift one-pound weights. Just in the twomonths since then I've come a long, long way."
The Orioles, whoranked 10th in the league in runs and eighth in OBP, will need another strongyear from Roberts to avoid getting buried in baseball's best division. "Wesaw last year that as Roberts and [shortstop] Miguel Tejada go, so goes theteam," says vice president of baseball operations Jim Duquette."[Roberts] is one of the premier leadoff guys and brings an element ofspeed and getting on base that changes the entire dynamic of theoffense."
Roberts was afeel-good story during an otherwise disastrous summer in Baltimore, from RafaelPalmeiro's positive steroid test to manager Lee Mazzilli's firing to SammySosa's seasonlong struggles. The Orioles are eager to begin anew, but afterfailing to add a much-needed bat to the heart of the order, they will againstruggle to score runs. The hope is that the young rotation, anchored by ErikBedard, 27, and Daniel Cabrera, 24, will provide the foundation for the future."We've made a conscious effort to build around our pitching," saysDuquette. "Are we going to contend? I don't know, but I think we're on theright track."
It will take morethan hard work to turn things around this year.
Before finishingfourth in the AL East, the Orioles spent 69 days in first place--49 more thanthe Yankees, who won the East in 2005. In the AL only the White Sox (182 days),Angels (170) and Red Sox (98) spent more time in first.
a modest proposal
The Oriolesshould decide whether shortstop Miguel Tejada's consecutive-games streak of 918(tops among active players and seventh-longest alltime) is worth preserving.The 29-year-old Tejada (right) wore down at the end of last season, hittingonly four homers in his last 252 at bats and slugging an anemic .384 from Aug.1 on, a drop of .206. Tejada's decline was far from unprecedented: Of the 157players since 1961 who played in all their team's games in a season, 46 (29%)saw their batting averages fall by at least 25 points from Aug. 1 on, and16--including Tejada--suffered a drop of at least 50 points (.324 to .270).
projected roster with 2005 statistics
fourth in ALEast
second seasonwith Baltimore
1B J. Lopez
COREY PATTERSON[New acquisition]
RAMON HERNANDEZ[New acquisition]
KEVIN MILLAR [Newacquisition]
JEFF CONINE [Newacquisition]
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Double A stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer...
Adam Loewen, 21,made a name for himself in the World Baseball Classic by shutting out the U.S.over 32/3 innings in Canada's 8--6 upset win on March 8. The slender, 6'6"lefthander has never pitched above Class A, but his mid-90s fastball and solidcommand have him on the fast track to join the Orioles' staff. When told thatLoewen belonged to Baltimore, Derek Jeter said after the loss to Canada,"I'm sure I'll be seeing a lot of him."