Career Reflections

The baseball season is underway. The Tar Heels have started their season and major league teams are well into spring training. For the first time in his life, one former Tar Heel will not be putting on the spikes and taking the field.

On October 17, 2014, former UNC star and long-time Baltimore Oriole, Brian Roberts, officially announced his retirement from baseball.

Roberts was a life-long Tar Heel fan growing up and he had a good reason for bleeding Carolina blue. His father, Mike Roberts, was the Tar Heels’ head coach from 1978 to 1998. Roberts also played catcher at UNC where he was an All-ACC selection all three years he played in Chapel Hill. He officially resigned after the 1998 season.

Brian played his first two collegiate seasons for his father at UNC. He had a breakout freshman season where he finished with the second highest batting average in the ACC (.427), which broke the previous UNC record held by B.J. Surhoff. Roberts also led the ACC in stolen bases (42) and had a remarkable on-base percentage (.505). He finished 1st-Team All-ACC and 2nd-Team All-American. In addition to those honors, Roberts was the ACC Rookie of the Year, and Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America named him National Freshman of the Year. In his sophomore campaign, Brian led the nation in stolen bases (63) and was 1st-Team All-American. He also became the 5th Tar Heel at the time to be named ACC Player of the Year.

In the wake of his father’s resignation, Brian transferred to South Carolina for his junior season. He was All-SEC, selected 1st-Team All-American and broke both the South Carolina and SEC records for stolen bases in a season (67). Baseball America also named him the Best Defensive Player in the nation.

Following three successful collegiate seasons, Roberts was selected in the first round of the 1999 MLB Draft by the Baltimore Orioles. He spent 14 years in the Orioles’ organization and was a two-time All-Star, including being voted in as a starter in the 2005 MLB All-Star Game. In 2007, Roberts led the American League in stolen bases (50). He led the American League in doubles in 2004 (50) and in 2009, his 56 doubles lead all of MLB, broke the MLB record for a switch-hitter, and that number still stands as an Orioles franchise record. Roberts finished his career in the famous pinstripes of the New York Yankees before retiring this past October.

Brian Roberts talked with the Inside Carolina Magazine at length about baseball, life, and a look back at his career.

Did you always dream about a career in baseball?
Actually, not really. When I was young I didn’t really look at baseball as an occupation. I grew up in a baseball family so it was just the game we played. It was a part of our everyday activities. At that time it was just that, a game. I never really thought about the future all that much. For me, it was more about getting to be around the stadium and getting to spend time with my Dad. He was so busy with coaching so if I wanted to spend time with him, playing baseball was one way to do that.

What challenges did you encounter growing up in baseball?
I think there are different ways to look at that. On one hand, I did give up a lot. One thing my Dad always emphasized was commitment. So when I was playing on a team, in the summer for instance, when some players took off a week or two for vacation, I kept playing. That didn’t happen in our family. If we were playing, there was no time off or vacation. So I guess I didn’t get to do all the things my friends did and at the time that was probably hard. However, looking back now, I wouldn’t change a thing because I have so many great memories of those times.

Did having a college coach for a father present its own challenges?
Yes, but maybe not how some people might think. Yes, he pushed me to do my best and we worked long hours on my game. However, I think one of the challenges that was tough for me were the expectations that came with being the son of a college coach. Everybody expected you to be the best on the team and that’s just not realistic. That was tough for me, particularly with my size. I was small and sometimes my size dictated whether or not I could be the best on my team. I think I put a little too much pressure on myself with those expectations. But there were also advantages to being a coach’s son.

"Tar Heel baseball is all I knew."

What were those advantages?
First and foremost, the coaching. I really believe I never would have made it to the big leagues if it wasn’t for my Dad coaching me all those years, teaching me the game and giving me his knowledge of the game. His job also afforded me a lot of opportunities other kids may not have had growing up. I got to be around the game every day and had access to excellent coaching and great facilities. Looking back, I think I was a batboy for UNC when I was four or five years old. My favorite picture came from a time when the UNC team bus broke down and it showed me sitting there hitting balls with the players in a gas station parking lot. Tar Heel baseball is all I knew. Plus, from a coaching perspective, he knew my personality and he knew my game, my strengths and weaknesses, so he knew how to coach me and make me better.

Once you made it to the big leagues or even now that you’ve retired, have the two of you had a moment to look back and reminisce about the journey?
Not too much. I think after the 2013 season in Baltimore I wasn’t sure what the future held or if I would continue playing. He was with me in the locker room after the last out of that last game. Two or three hours after that game ended we were still there, just the two of us, cleaning out my locker and I think we sat back and started doing some of that then.

When people who know you talk about you, the word “humble” comes up a lot when they describe your personality. Where do you think that comes from?
Honestly, I think most of the time it came from the fact that I never really felt I was that good (laughing). I think in order to be arrogant you have to believe you’re really great at what you do. Most of my career I never felt I was great so I guess being humble came easy, which maybe was a problem for me at points in my career. I probably fought against my own doubts more than anything. Growing up in the environment I did I was exposed to great players and traveling around with different teams allowed me to realize how many great players there are around the country. I guess I never thought I was one of them.

Ultimately, why did you end up choosing to play baseball at UNC?
I think there were a few reasons. First and foremost, I didn’t have another scholarship offer from any other school. I don’t think there were a lot of schools that realistically thought I would end up being a great college baseball player. I’m sure some places assumed I was always going to go to UNC. I grew up bleeding Carolina blue and at times I wanted to look around, but deep down I always knew I wanted to go to UNC.

You had great success early in college, proving those other teams wrong. Did you expect to have that kind of breakout season during your freshman year?
Absolutely not. Not in my wildest dreams. I had a miserable time in fall ball and I was pretty nervous heading into my first season. Some of that again, in terms of my own expectations, went back to my size. In high school I weighed maybe 150 pounds so I was a decent hitter, but by no means was I hitting with any real power. In fact, the first homerun I ever hit in my entire life wasn’t until my senior year in high school. I really started to work hard to get stronger and get bigger heading into my freshman year. My Dad had instilled the skills in me, but I needed more strength and size to bring those skills out at the next level. Somehow, by God’s grace, I got off to a hot start that spring and took off from there.

Your play did take off at UNC and you earned a lot of accolades playing in Chapel Hill for your Dad. Then came the end of his career at UNC and your transfer to South Carolina. How did all of that come to be?
It was a really stressful time to be honest. I didn’t even really find out what was going on until a few days before classes started my sophomore year. I had been selected to play on the U.S. National Team and we were traveling all over the world that summer. When I got back from that, my Mom and Dad picked me up from RDU Airport and told me what was happening on the way home. They told me that would be his last season coaching at UNC. Needless to say, I was shocked. That whole year was not easy. In a way it was odd, because nobody had wanted me out of high school and now my phone was ringing off the hook. But at that point I had been happy in Chapel Hill and all I wanted to do was be a Tar Heel. All of my best friends were at UNC and I loved my teammates.

As the season went on, it became harder to picture not playing for my Dad at UNC; coming into that clubhouse and seeing somebody else in his office was too hard to imagine. I had a great relationship with Coach Tanner at South Carolina and he let me know they would love to have me. I still wasn’t sure and I headed up north that summer to play in the Cape Cod League. When I came back I had actually decided with my family that maybe the best thing for me was to take a semester away from school and regroup, with the intention of coming back for the spring semester and play my junior year at UNC. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option given to me at Carolina so I ended up heading to South Carolina for that last season.

Following that season at South Carolina, the Orioles selected you in the first round of the 1999 MLB Draft. Do you remember where you were and what you thought at that moment?
Yes. I was back in Chapel Hill playing golf with one of my best friends from UNC. I had to get out of the house. The build-up to the draft was hectic and stressful. Teams were all over the place in terms of what they were telling us was going to happen. They were trying to figure out which rounds they picked me in or signing bonus numbers would guarantee that I signed with them as opposed to returning to college. No [two teams were] the same. So with all that in my mind, the last thing I wanted to do was sit there at home while all of these scenarios played out.

You have to remember, back then we didn’t have online draft trackers and real-time information about the picks on the Internet. It was still the old-school wait by the phone for a call scenario. When I got home my parents let me know the Orioles had picked me. The feeling was a moment of realizing all of that hard work we talked about and skipping vacations and all that had finally paid off. I was going to play professional baseball. It was awesome.

What was it like arriving at Spring Training and playing in the infield next to Cal Ripken, Jr.? Was it just baseball at that point or something more?
Oh no, it was special and quite surreal to be honest. There was a big shock and awe factor for me. Our facility at the time was really small for MLB standards. When you walked in there were eight large lockers up front, and all of the big league guys had those lockers. Veteran stars like Cal, Brady Anderson, Jeff Conine, and all the names you saw on ESPN were at those lockers.

Then in the back in a small, cramped area were tiny lockers that all of us minor leaguers were sharing two to three guys per locker. I remember thinking, compared to those big league guys, “Yep, this is right where I belong.” The whole experience was both humbling and amazing at the same time. Humbling in the sense that my agent literally begged the team to invite me to the major league spring training camp (laughing). Then rewarding because I ended up being the last one of the minor leaguers left in that locker room before the final cut day.

I had made it all the way through Spring Training which felt great. I was still in the tiny part of the locker room but at least I had my own locker. It also meant I got to spend a lot of time with those guys like Cal, Brady, Mike Bordick and just learn what being a professional ball player was all about which was invaluable to me at that point in my career. They were phenomenal to me and later in the year when I got called up it made it an easier transition for me to already have those relationships when I got to Baltimore.

Do you remember your first major league hit or homerun, where it was or who was pitching?
Absolutely. My first hit was in my first game at Camden Yards. I was batting against Steve Trachsel for the New York Mets, who later became a teammate of mine in Baltimore. My first at-bat I knew I was going to swing at whatever he threw me on the first pitch and I hit a line drive to center for an out. Then in my second at-bat I connected again to center for line drive hit. I still have the ball. My first homerun was in Arlington against the Rangers. I don’t remember the pitcher but he was a lefty.

"I couldn’t believe I was going to play in the major league All-Star game."

We’ve talked at length about all of the work, all of the sacrifice and the perseverance it took to get to the major leagues. Describe the moment when you found out you were voted an All-Star.
Earlier in this conversation I told how I felt like I was never really any good. I guess that moment was a pinnacle point for me and I couldn’t believe I was going to play in the major league All-Star game. At that moment I think I had the most confidence in my game as at any point in my career. Then I walked into that locker room at the all-star game and I’ve never felt so insufficient (laughing). I mean, you look around that room and it’s filled with every superstar, and then there’s me. I had been playing in the big leagues every day for a few years at that point, but I was still star struck at that moment. The whole experience was amazing from start to finish. I mean, years before I was sitting in my apartment in Chapel Hill at UNC watching all of the All-Star festivities on TV with my friends. Now I was experiencing all of those events and being able to share it with those same friends and my family was really special. Unforgettable.

Fans of pro sports always notice the fame and the fortune of their favorite players and are in awe of what they do. But what are the hard parts of that life that the average fan just doesn’t see?
In baseball, and for me in particular, I don’t think fans always appreciate how grueling minor league baseball really is to a player. I remember I got drafted and got a nice signing bonus and thought everything was going to be awesome, and it was. Then I get to my first assignment with the Delmarva Shorebirds in eastern Maryland. I didn’t even get in the game until near the end to pinch run for Delino Deshields, who was on a rehab assignment. Then we board the bus, I didn’t know anybody on the team, and we’re all squeezed together on there for a 13-hour drive to Macon, Georgia. I mean guys were trying to find every which way possible to get some sleep. Laying on the floor, laying on each other, and then when we arrived we had to be ready to suit up and play another game.

I remember wondering what I got myself into and wishing I was back in college ball. So that’s a part of the game I don’t think people can really understand unless they lived it. The big leagues have a whole different set of problems to deal with that guys struggle with in every sport. The pressure to perform at your best every night in front of thousands of fans at the park and watching on TV is real. Your performance is critiqued every night and you’re just one day away from being cut or sent back down to the minors. You can learn to handle that pressure or that pressure can eat you up and spit you out.

You touched on it already, but were there parts of college baseball that you missed?
Yes, you really miss the fact that in college ball you’re playing for that name on the front of your jersey. There’s a camaraderie that’s there and it’s unique. In the minors it’s every man for themselves trying to get to the big leagues. Then in the big leagues there is more of that team effort to win, but guys still have that pressure to get their stats and be a star or get that next contract. In college it’s just so simple; you want to win for your school and your buddies.

Have you followed UNC baseball as your professional career progressed?
I have. In this day and age with the Internet it was much easier to follow what was going on in the rankings and making it to Omaha. Plus, with the growth of the program there are so many guys now in the league that you’re always running into people and talking about UNC. The stadium improvements are amazing. However, I have to admit, I miss the old building and the dungeness weight room and everything that I grew up seeing in that program. But to see it reach great heights is obviously a great thing to all of us that played there.

Who was the hardest pitcher you faced in the major leagues?
Man, I really hated facing Tim Wakefield. I just hated the knuckleball. I couldn’t even sleep the night before if I knew we were facing him the next day. I never liked facing Mariano Rivera. You knew if he was coming out of the bullpen and you heard ‘Enter Sandman’ you were in for a really bad at-bat. Then of course Randy Johnson was so big you felt like he was standing a few feet from you. He was not pleasant to face either.

You became the face of the Orioles. What does Baltimore mean to you and your wife, Diana?
It means everything to us. They gave me a chance to reach every dream I had ever hoped for, from playing pro ball to getting my first hit to becoming an All-Star. Everything I was able to do started with the Orioles giving me that chance and the organization standing behind me. Life away from the field I think meant even more to us in some aspects. The relationships we built there. The people that supported me, my family, and the causes we believed in all made Baltimore home for us. We will always look at Baltimore as home and my career was in Baltimore. I just hope we were able to impact that community beyond baseball in the same way that it impacted us.

"You can’t describe the feeling of knowing the historical significance of that place and stepping out onto that field."

Do you have a favorite major league stadium?
I really love Camden Yards, but outside of that stadium I love the old parks like the original Yankee Stadium. It was my favorite place to play. You can’t describe the feeling of knowing the historical significance of that place and stepping out onto that field. Just to know that guys like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle stood in the same batter’s box you were standing in still gives me goose bumps. I think those historic stadiums brought out the best in me too because they defined what I always thought baseball was all about.

Speaking of the Yankees, in your last season in 2014, you got to put on those famous pinstripes and be a Yankee. What was your experience there like?
Well, at the end of 2013 I knew I wanted to play another year and really thought that would be in Baltimore. I had always hoped to finish my career with Baltimore because not many people get to play their whole career with the same team and I thought that would have been great. However, it didn’t work out that way. If there was one place to go other than Baltimore, what better place than to be a part of such a historic franchise. I really enjoyed my time there, playing with those guys and getting to meet the Yankees legends that would come by the ballpark and at special events. I think it really hit me in spring training when I put the uniform on. That’s when it hits you and you see those pinstripes on you. It was a neat feeling.

In regards to the history of the original Yankee Stadium, what does it mean to you that you are now part of that stadium’s history in being the last at-bat, the last person to stand in those batters boxes?
It’s really neat. I hope and think about the day I’ll pass that story onto my son or grandchildren. I’ll get to tell them that I faced the greatest closer in major league history in the most historic major league stadium and that I was the last person to come to the plate in that stadium. Wow, just saying that out loud is surreal and reminds me how much I’m just a fan of baseball.

This article is from the March 2015 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.

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