ANAHEIM, Calif. – Brian Roberts, his wife and their 9-month-old son moved into a nice place in Tarrytown, up in Westchester, about 48 hours before the season started. Roberts sought out the best route to work and took that to the ballpark, eyeing every sign and memorizing the landmarks of what would be his new routine.
He'd never really had a new routine before.
He had gone to New York to become a Yankee, which was cool and a little weird at the same time. There, he was to stand where Robinson Cano had, but that was simply a matter of positioning. Nobody was asking him to replace Cano, not in the box score sense of the word or, for that matter, the luxury-tax sense of the word. The Yankees needed a second baseman. Roberts is a second baseman. Or had been. Or could be again. Or something.
An Oriole his adult life, Roberts had seen plenty of guys come and go in Baltimore and, honestly, had never given it much thought. Then he'd go home to the place he'd had for a decade or so, and return to the same ballpark he'd always played in, every day about as familiar as the last. He knew which doors pushed and which pulled. He knew the people standing beside them, their names without looking at their badges and sometimes their stories.
This life, all this, was, well, interesting.
"It's great," Roberts said Wednesday afternoon. "The guys are awesome. There's no better place to play than New York. But it is a transition, no matter what. I don't know if I ever even realized."
He looks now at the game's nomads, "The guys who play for eight or nine teams, do that every year," and admires their capacities for new cities and uniforms and teammates and living quarters. More, their ability to show up and fall in, to play the game. To hit.
So, five weeks into it and batting under .250, he homered to beat the Angels in the ninth inning Tuesday night. The home run was his first as a Yankee. Afterward he spoke of pushing himself a little too hard to be more, to carry his part of the offense, to step in for Cano, to …
Well, here's the thing about that: Not that long ago, before the injuries and the concussions took away a good portion of his prime, Roberts was doing things like leading the league in doubles and batting .300 or close to it and hitting 15 home runs. Now he's 36 and feathering in some gray, and putting days and at-bats between himself and his ailments, and why not walk in thinking he could be that player again?
It's not Cano of 2013, but it could be Roberts of 2009, his last healthy season. Can't it? Shouldn't Roberts think so? Isn't that why he's here? What got him here?
"More than anything," he said, "when you feel like you have played at a pretty elite level, that's what you always expect of yourself. Regardless of whether I was here or in Baltimore, you'd have that expectation of yourself. Then there's the added thought of being on a new team, being in New York, playing a position they had had so much success at for so long, and with obviously a lot of fanfare with how [Cano departed]."
The fanfare, if that's what you want to call it, hasn't ended either. Cano's former hitting coach was critical of Cano during spring training, then along comes a passage from Mariano Rivera's new book that opined, "You don't see that red-hot passion in him that you see in most elite players." To each, Cano responded with grace. The conversation continues, however. Cano is gone, the Yankees are below average offensively, and questions linger about what they'll get out of their third baseman, their shortstop and their second baseman.
Roberts predicted nothing. But, after averaging 48 games and 181 at-bats over the past four years, and being a damned good ballplayer for the six years before that, you can assume he's as curious as anyone what 150 games might look like. And if he's the only guy who's thinking about him picking up a little more of what Cano left behind, then so be it.
"I can understand how he feels that," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
Roberts had another hit and an RBI Wednesday night in a 9-2 win, and he's batting .400 for going on a week, all in the bottom third of the Yankees' order, where Cano would never be. But Cano is gone and somebody had to go play second base when the money he left behind went toward Tanaka, Ellsbury, McCann and Beltran, and along came Roberts with a past split between production and misfortune. Maybe he could make it all new again. He'd try anyway.
"For me," he said, "it's really about being on the field. If I can be on the field the rest will take care of itself."
Not just on the field, but where on the field, his new reality.
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