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Inside Baseball: Bisons gave Roberts a leg up on his career

It starts with the feet. Anyone who knows the career story of Dave Roberts knows what I’m talking about, all the way back to when he became the Bisons’ modern-era leader in stolen bases. But when he swiped second base in the ninth inning of Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series and eventually scored the tying run, the fleet outfielder essentially changed the course of Boston baseball history.

So when Roberts got to Fenway Park earlier this month in his current role as first-base coach of the San Diego Padres, he went to check his feet out. Seriously. They’re encased in cement in a new Red Sox history display in the right-field concourse. Size 9. Forever for anyone to see in a mold the Sox had made during spring training.

“It was crazy but it’s a huge honor,” Roberts, 41, said by phone Friday from San Diego. “The only thing I’ve ever had molded before were my teeth for a retainer. It’s pretty surreal if you think about it that an iconic ballpark like Fenway Park will have my feet embedded in there forever for my kids and grandkids to see.”

Come Friday night, Roberts will last forever in Bisons history as well as he will join former first baseman/DH Ernie Young as the 2013 player enshrinees for the Buffalo Baseball Hall for Fame. Roberts will accept via video during the ceremonies at Coca-Cola Field prior to the game against Toledo.

Roberts came to Buffalo late in the 1998 season and was a part of the team’s Governors’ Cup championship and run to the Triple-A World Series. He finished his career here in 2001 with 97 steals and a .286 batting average in 276 games. He ranks sixth in the modern era in runs (194) and eighth in hits (305). In both 1999 and 2000, he stole a team-best 39 bases, earning International League All-Star honors in ’99.

“The first thing I recall about Buffalo is that I realized that I was getting pretty close to the big leagues,” he said of his promotion from Double-A Akron of the Cleveland chain in August 1998. “And I had heard Buffalo was ‘the big leagues of the minors.’

“I learned a lot with my time in Buffalo. I was around a lot of great people, people in the organization with the Bisons. I really learned to become a complete baseball player in Buffalo and it really prepared me for the major leagues.

“With Bob and Mindy Rich going down to Mike Buczkowski, the way everyone handled us, we all felt part of a family. We really did. You all want to be in the major leagues but my wife and I still talk about it, that all the places we’ve been, our times in Buffalo were some of the best we ever had. The friends we met and guys we played with there are still friends.”

To wit, Roberts pointed out that former Bisons first baseman Chan Perry and his wife are the godparents for Roberts’ 12-year-old son, Cole, and Roberts and his wife, Tricia, are godparents for the daughter of former Buffalo pitcher Jim Brower.

I was fortunate to be in Fenway Park covering the ALCS for The News on that chilly October night Roberts turned the ’04 series around. Prior to Game Five the next day, we chatted about the play for a couple of minutes with a couple of other reporters around. I’ve often thought about that conversation because at the time we had no idea we were talking about what probably ranks as the most significant stolen base in baseball history.

“After Game Four and throughout the ALCS, there was so much going on and it was so crazy,” he said. “We went right into the World Series and our team was totally focused on winning a championship. Red Sox Nation may have been content on just beating the Yankees but our group wanted more.

“When that happened and you got to the victory parade and heard the fans and kept seeing clips of my stolen base, then it really kind of hit me that this could really be something we’ll be talking about for years to come.”

Roberts was acquired at the trade deadline from the Dodgers but admitted he had to swallow some pride going from an everyday player to a bench guy who was often used as a pinch-runner. When Boston manager Terry Francona sent him into the game, he knew what his job was.

“They acquired me as a speed guy and that was my opportunity to really validate the trade,” he said. “I did my part, knew I had a job to do. And Tito gave me that opportunity and didn’t call for a sacrifice bunt so I give him a lot of credit, too.”

Roberts played 832 games in the big leagues with the Indians, Dodgers, Giants, Padres and Red Sox, but some forget he only played 45 of them in Boston and all came in ’04. And that old line about never having to buy another drink or pay for another meal in Beantown? It’s pretty much true.

“Somehow it seems like they always want to thank me by paying the bill,” Roberts said with a laugh. “It’s such a generational fan base there. People come up to you and say it was one of the best moments their grandfather had before he passed away. All kinds of things like that.”

Roberts lives in San Diego with his wife, son and daughter Emmerson (8). The Padres, managed by ’98 Buffalo pitching coach Bud Black, have had an up and down season with a 5-15 start, a rush to .500 and a 10-game losing streak that just ended last week that dropped them back to 10 games under again.

“Things are working well and all of a sudden you can’t synch the offense and the pitching,” he said. “That’s kind of what we’re victim to early on and the last two weeks. But no one wants to run away with this division. You know Buddy Black. There’s no panic from him. Guys show up fresh every day. I really enjoy coaching and being a teacher with him. We just have to keep working.”

Roberts on Datz

Roberts has a clean bill of health now after going through six months of chemotherapy to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2010. So he has been saddened to learn of the cancer diagnosis of Seattle coach Jeff Datz, who skippered the Bisons to that ’98 championship.

Datz was diagnosed with a second bout of skin cancer earlier this year and has undergone six weeks of radiation treatment. Off the field since late April, he hopes to return later this month.

“I talked to him through the spring and I told him, ‘My thoughts and prayers are with you. … I’ll be there to support you, as will many other people,’” Roberts said.

“He’s one of those guys who will be part of my life forever and it’s someone you first met in Buffalo and one of the reasons it’s a special place.”

Mets see disaster scene

When the Mets flew to San Francisco last Sunday, they got a sobering view upon landing as their plan went down a runway right past the wreckage of the Asiana flight that crash-landed there July 6. Dillon Gee tweeted a picture of it from his seat on the team charter.

“I was on the side where the plane was. You could see all the debris starting where it hit the seawall,” Gee told the New York Post. “It was crazy to see half the plane there all charred up. We take for granted that we fly so much in our travels, really the risks never pop into your mind. We just fly so much it is just part of our job. When you see that, it is kind of scary.”

“It was eye-opening,” added David Wright. “You see the debris and the plane on TV, but it doesn’t really hit home until you fly right next to it and see it when we were landing. You feel for everyone involved with it. It was obviously devastating when you see it firsthand, the type of damage that the plane took. ... It was surreal.”

Count to 100

The Mets had ace Matt Harvey take Saturday in Pittsburgh off due to a blister problem so he could pitch in the All-Star Game Tuesday night at Citi Field. Don’t like that but I get it, too. The chance to throw that game on the home field comes once a career.

Speaking of Harvey, pointed out he has a 43.20 ERA in innings this year he begins with a pitch count over 100 – and a 1.93 mark when he starts without being at 100. Seems like Terry Collins should have that stat handy.

Around the horn

• Tweet last week from Fox Sports national baseball reporter and former Tigers beat guy Jon Paul Morosi: “Grandpa Geno Morosi, our proud WWII vet, turned 93 today. When we spoke, he had one pressing concern: Al Alburquerque’s fastball command.”

• Cautionary tale for Pirates fans: The Bucs are 134-104 through June the last three seasons and 70-105 from July 1 to the end of the season. And they started this July 2-6. Uh-oh.

• A word of thanks: This corner is joining Roberts and Young in the Buffalo Baseball Hall in the Steward category for off-the-field contributors. Quite an honor and I’m much appreciative of the numerous emails and tweets I’ve received since the inductees were announced last week. Should be a great night.