BALTIMORE - It was March 6 and the Baltimore Orioles had taken a bus south for an exhibition game on the road on the Gulf Coast of Florida to play the Red Sox in Ft. Myers.
The spring training clubhouse of the Orioles in Sarasota was mostly deserted, and the back fields used by the team were all but vacant.
But on a small baseball field, with just a dirt infield near the entrance to the complex off 12th Street in Sarasota, Major League veteran Brian Roberts performed some basic – very basic – drills with Orioles’ instructor and former big league shortstop Mike Bordick while many of his teammates were getting ready to face Boston.
“That was certainly an early stage. I was certainly a long way away,” Roberts said nearly four months later, sitting at his locker in the Baltimore clubhouse at Camden Yards. “Bordy was rolling the ball and doing some drills. I almost started like I was in Little League. My first progression was 10 groundballs hit real easy. It was like starting all over again.”
In a way, that’s what he was doing. Chapel High graduate and former UNC star Roberts hadn’t played baseball since suffering a concussion in May of 2011.
He finally returned to the Orioles’ lineup June 12 after missing more than a year due to the injury.
“The most pleasing thing is playing one more time,” said Roberts, 34, who played for the Tar Heels and then for South Carolina before being drafted by Baltimore. “I didn’t know if that was going to be possible.”
It’s been an up-and-down ride for Roberts, who turns 35 in October. Just 17 games after his post-concussion return to the major leagues, he injured his hip and went back on the disabled list.
Roberts hit .212 in his first 52 at bats for the Orioles this year. He played at North Carolina under his father, Mike, now the head coach of Cotuit in the Cape Cod League.
Roberts suffered the concussion when he slid head first into second base on May 16, 2011, in a game against the Red Sox.
He had to take small, incremental steps to get back to the level that made him an All-Star second baseman.
“It was really basic stuff,” Bordick, the infield/baserunning coordinator in player development and a broadcaster for the Orioles, recalls of those spring training sessions. The doctors “just wanted him to take baby steps.”
So on that warm day in Florida, Bordick rolled the ball to Roberts on the practice field.
“That was the basic first steps,” said Bordick, who played in the big leagues with the A’s, Mets, Orioles and Blue Jays from 1990 to 2003. “Then some days we would take batting practice.”
So what does Bordick think of Roberts now that he is back on the field?
“I was leery of how he would respond to game situations,” Bordick said in late June, standing in the Baltimore clubhouse. “He has responded great. I think he is at 100 percent.”
Roberts said the low point of his comeback took place last September.
“I would say probably when I got shut down again in September,” he said. “The doctor shut me down again, and I had been trying to come back for three months. I was not sure how well this was going.”
He was finally cleared to play in June, and he returned with a bang; he had three hits in his first game back at the big league level on June 12 in a win at home over Pittsburgh.
“I actually had bad dreams last night,” Roberts told reporters after that game. "I had to wake up and cross some stuff out of my mind. I have no idea why. But I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t expecting three hits. I was just trying to go out there, and as cliché as it sounds, try to have good at-bats and try to do something that would help us win a game.”
"I really didn’t want to be part of coming in here and losing five or six in a row,” he added in June 12. “That was probably my biggest fear. More than anything, I just wanted to try to be productive. It was definitely more than I could ask for. I’m just so grateful."
His return suffered a setback, though, when the Orioles placed him on the disabled list with what was originally termed a “sore groin.” It was later diagnosed as a tear in his right hip labral, and surgery may be needed.
Roberts was drafted by the Orioles out of South Carolina in 1999. He made his big league debut in 2001. He was named to the American League All-Star team in 2005 and 2007. Roberts had a career-high 50 steals in 2007 and a career-best 56 doubles two years later. In his last full season in 2009 he hit .283 with 16 home runs and 110 runs scored.
Injuries limited him to 59 games in 2010, and he played just 39 last year before the concussion ended his season.
Now the hip injury has sidelined him again. It was just the latest news which led him to think about his post-career plans, which are still uncertain.
“I have thought about that before now,” he said. “I know I am not going to play forever. You try to prepare for those days. I don’t want to be one of those guys that doesn’t prepare for that.”