Dave Roberts had to learn to embrace his Red Sox 'hero' status

BOSTON – Dave Roberts would say he’s come a lot farther than 90 feet.

He’s done more work than that. Endured more. Laughed harder and cried longer. Won better, maybe.

He would say he gets to choose his moment, the one that says this is who he was and what he believed. And this is what he did about that.

The stories, though, they come in waves.

Like the young man sitting in a living room up the road in Milton, sitting with his dad, sitting there waiting on his own chance at baseball, sitting there wondering how the Boston Red Sox were going to get out of this mess. How he was hopeful but realistic. Probably more hopeful.

Then Dave Roberts was trotting from the dugout to first base, and waiting while Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada talked about how this might go, then edging from the bag, then running, fast as he could, three, three-and-a-half seconds worth, finally his left palm slamming into second base as Derek Jeter came with the tag, late.

A guy I knew, stole about 600 bases in pro ball, called the big ones, “Quality Bags,” like proper nouns. They were the steals everyone in the ballpark knew he had to — had to — have. Pitcher shaved off some tenths on his delivery, catcher rolled up a little higher on his toes and angled his shoulders and asked for fastballs. There wasn’t even a sign for those. Just, go. Gotta go. And Godspeed.

Fourteen years later, they tell him where they were, who they were with, how high they leaped, how they believed. They tell him what those 90 feet made them feel, how those 90 feet changed them. Changed everything. He wasn’t the right man at the right time. He was the only man at the only time.

Fourteen years after he became a Red Sox legend, Dave Roberts is back at Fenway Park as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Getty Images)
Fourteen years after he became a Red Sox legend, Dave Roberts is back at Fenway Park as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Getty Images)

He didn’t always love that. It was a lot to bear. It seemed to forget the rest of him. Then he began to understand.

“I think the key that I’ve really grown to appreciate is it’s not about me,” the Los Angeles Dodgers manager said. “I understand that it was a big play for me, for the Red Sox and our club in 2004. But, understanding that everyone has a moment. That moment is special to them or whoever they’re with, and however they identify that play with that particular moment. And for them to want to share that with me, that’s pretty humbling.”

If that stolen base were born that day, and in a way it was, it would be about Emme’s age. She is Dave’s daughter, his second child, a few years behind Cole, his son. She is 14, as of September. She has Dave’s eyes and his smile. That’s how Dave marks his time, how fathers (and mothers) do, pushing the events of 90 feet into the proper context of the rest of their lives, the way it can be great and insignificant over two breaths.

Up in Milton that night, Rich Hill, then 24 and eight months from his big-league debut, began to see how the Red Sox were going to get out of this mess.

“There was that feeling,” he said Monday afternoon, “something special was going to happen.”

From forever away, Alex Cora, Roberts’ teammate only a few months before, tapped at his phone. “I don’t know what’s going to happen here,” he wrote. “But, if this happens, you’re going to be a hero.” He pushed send.

Dave Roberts steals second base as Derek Jeter takes the throw in the 9th inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. (Getty Images)
Dave Roberts steals second base as Derek Jeter takes the throw in the 9th inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. (Getty Images)

And so from a distance of much farther than 90 feet, Rich Hill drove in from Milton on Monday afternoon, and Dave Roberts bused in from downtown, and they thought the same things, that this was all so familiar. So kind to them. Even, maybe, how young they were once, back when 90 feet seemed like everything in the world, how one of them celebrated with their dad, how the other had the legs and the desire to make those 90 feet happen, to launch something special.

Rich would come to Fenway as a boy with his dad, and later he’d take a date here and they’d waited in line and come through the gate and stood atop the left-field wall, and they’d cheered the good stuff together. He married her. At 38, he drove those same roads on the way to the World Series, past the parks where he was Boggs or Vaughn or Clemens, past the college, past the hospital, past the places that were where they should have been, where he’d left them in his memory, into the ballpark that was the last 90 feet.

“It can be overwhelming,” he said.

The game went 12 innings, of course. The series went seven games. The World Series was an inevitability, after that. Something else had come to life, something that was no longer dreary or pathetic or hopeless. There’d still be seasons that ended in last place. There’d still be the dumb stuff that comes with baseball, that is only perfectly sane in baseball, that is at times only baseball in Boston. There was no doubt, however, that it had changed, and had changed forever, and unlike in the wispy retellings that come with most minor revolutions, the Red Sox had tipped on 90 feet. On the man who took them. That he was just passing through — Dave Roberts was a Red Sox from August to December that year, for not even five months — made it all spin truer.

They would choose him anyway. He would be their moment. And he would allow it.

“It is great coming back to this great city,” Roberts said Monday evening, the eve of the World Series. “I’ve got nothing but great memories, even flying into Logan. Just this time of year, the city, the leaves changing. And then you drive up to Fenway Park and it all just kind of comes back to you, 2004.”

So, who he was then and what he believed then. And what he did about that, then. What it makes him now.

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