Dave Roberts is evidence why race can be both important, meaningless

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
Dave Roberts is the Dodgers’ first manager of color. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Dave Roberts is the Dodgers’ first manager of color. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Waymon Roberts, an African-American man from outside Houston, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968. He met and married a Japanese woman, Eiko. Their son, Dave, was born in 1972, and for the next 26 years they moved from military base to military base, a requirement of the life. It began for Dave in Okinawa, where his father was stationed repairing radios. Waymon soon was transferred to Southern California, then to other bases in California, to Okinawa again, to North Carolina, to Hawaii, back to California. It’s where Dave grew up, in two- and three-year sequences, from one neighborhood to another, these friends to those friends, this life to that.

“We have no choice about where we were going,” Waymon would tell his family, which by then included a daughter, Melissa. “But we have a choice of who we are going to be when we get there.”

Where they landed, wherever it was, the principles were simple for a young man forever examining the landscape for how he’d fit in, how he’d measure up, how he might win.

“It was what you did,” Waymon said, “and who your dad was.”

He coiled an eyebrow.

“How many stripes,” he said.

Those were the rules. Didn’t matter if you were big or Dave-sized, smart or not, white or black or brown. Carry your load, be respectful, fall in behind pops.

“We didn’t talk race,” Waymon said. “And we didn’t talk racism either.”

Waymon, now 67, retired in 1998 a Master Gunnery Sergeant.

“E9,” he said, adding without pretension, “Top of my field.”

He sat Tuesday afternoon in a room high above the right-field line at Dodger Stadium. To his right, Don Newcombe, Maury Wills and Tommy Lasorda. To his left, Magic Johnson. Eiko was there. So was Dave’s wife, Tricia, and their children, Cole and Emmerson. Cole is a freshman in high school, a shortstop, and looks exactly like his father. Told he’d be taller than him soon, too, Cole smiled and said, “I hope so.”

Before the news conference that would formally introduce his son as the next manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Waymon had a moment alone with Dave. This was the son who’d not been drafted out of high school, who’d not been offered a scholarship to play baseball at any school, who’d driven north to UC Riverside and then UCLA to ask if they could use a walk-on outfielder. (He chose UCLA and had a partial scholarship by his sophomore year.) This was the young man who was a 28th-round draft pick out of college, who debuted in the big leagues two months after his 27th birthday, who got 10 years in anyway and won a championship and then retired and started all over again as a coach.

This was the half-black, half-Japanese grown man who would be the Dodgers’ first manager of color, going on 70 years since the organization hired, promoted and played the first black player in the major leagues. The number that hangs in every big-league ballpark came straight off a Dodgers’ back.

And so in that quiet moment, against a long history of talking about accountability and respect and what a man should be, but not about race or racism, Waymon asked his son about that.

“Yeah,” Dave said, “my dad brought it up.”

Not an hour later, Dave leaned into a microphone, found his father’s face in a crowded room, and said, “I look at my father here …”

He turned his head slightly.

“My mother here …” he said.

“I am the son of Waymon and Eiko Roberts,” he continued. “And the husband of Tricia Roberts.”

She is white.

“And I’ve got two beautiful kids,” he said. “And I am who I am. I’m transparent. I am who I am.

The Roberts' family. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
The Roberts' family. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

“To step back and [not] realize it’s much, much bigger than me, this situation, would be completely irresponsible of me. I think there’s a lot of people that paved the way ultimately for me to have this opportunity. … It goes not just to the opportunity. It goes to the responsibility I feel as the first minority manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That isn’t taken lightly. It’s something I’m going to carry with me forever.

“As far as … why hasn’t it happened earlier, I have no idea. I’ve just kind of done my deal and been true to the game of baseball that I love. I’m very, very fortunate that it’s me.”

His family scattered around the room afterward, Waymon stood alone for a time. He is a large man with short-cropped hair and a smile reserved for when you’ve really earned it. He told stories about Dave growing up, how he was always the small kid, but always the fast kid, too, the one who had to win at everything.

“The other kids, they knew, if they were going to beat Dave,” Waymon said, “they were going to have to outlast him.”

He laughed a little, and you assumed he still could see that plucky kid quarterbacking his football team, tearing up the bases, leading a fast break. Though he could run, it was still often uphill, against bigger boys, and then bigger men, against the stronger and more talented, and all these years later it still seems the races are run uphill.

He’s the new manager of the Dodgers, whose history is white managers, and it’s 2015. That’s where we are.

The Dodgers had Jackie. They are the organization of Newk and Campy and Maury. Magic is part owner today.

Dusty Baker is in Washington, D.C. Fredi Gonzalez, born in Cuba, is in Atlanta. Roberts is in L.A. That’s where we are today. In the minor leagues, there were, according to MLB accounting, fewer than 10 black managers in 2015. That’s where we are.

On a day such as Tuesday, when Roberts stepped into a white jersey with the No. 30 on its back, the notion of race was present but distant. He’d earned the job, and it so happened he didn’t look exactly like anyone who’d held it before him. That could be something. Today, presumably, it is.

Wills, who came into the league a dozen years after Robinson had, was asked about the significance of Roberts in this job against the backdrop of a game that needs more like him, smiled and said, “I think it’s probably only important to the people that ask the question. That’s not my daily thoughts, no.”

And Magic said it was enough that Dave Roberts was a good man, a good choice and good at what he does.

“The only thing I emphasized is to get the best candidates,” he said, “and hopefully one of them is a minority. … They found the right guy.”

I asked Waymon Roberts if he appreciated what his son had said about being the first of his skin color to manage the Dodgers, that against the evidence it had nothing to do with the reason he was hired. That his race could be important, while at the same time meaningless, and that still it carried an obligation, but no more than anyone else in the same job, and how does it untangle?

“He said,” Waymon said, “what I wanted to say, better than I could’ve said it.”

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