TORONTO – As fishbowl managerial jobs go, there is Joe Girardi’s growing hot seat in New York and there is John Farrell’s daily grind in Boston. But for rookie managers, there is nothing like the situation Dave Roberts finds himself in with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Three straight NL West Division titles by Don Mattingly weren’t enough because of his litany of postseason failures. So the Dodgers went with Roberts, the former San Diego bench coach who spent parts of four years patrolling the Bisons’ outfield and was inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013.
And Roberts has been tested right from the start with several spring training injuries, notably pitcher Brett Anderson’s back problem and outfielder Andre Ethier’s fractured tibia. But the 43-year-old Roberts is undaunted. Remember, he’s a cancer survivor who battled his way into the big leagues after being a 28th-round draft pick. He was always one of the most upbeat players in the Buffalo clubhouse when he was there from the end of the 1998 season through 2001.
For first jobs, this isn’t like managing a nondescript team like, say, the Brewers. This is a $200 million-plus payroll, the bright lights of the big city, Magic Johnson as an owner and Vin Scully’s final year in the broadcast booth.
“It’s been great for me. But regardless of where you manage and what role you’re in, you have to be yourself,” Roberts said over the weekend in Rogers Centre. “I love teaching. I love coaching and being with people. When I look at it in that sense, it’s a huge honor. Like I’ve said many times this year, this is the best job for me. But it doesn’t change how I go about my day to day. We’re always focused on how we can help this team win a game on that night. That’s all I care about.”
Roberts played 832 games in the big leagues with five teams, first getting a call to Cleveland from Buffalo in 1999. He was a regular in the Dodgers outfield from 2002-2004 until the deadline trade to Boston that led to his now-historic stolen base against the Yankees in Game Four of the 2004 ALCS.
Before The Steal, we knew all about Roberts’ fleet feet. He remains the Bisons’ modern-era stolen base leader with 97, including back-to-back seasons of 39 in 1999 and 2000. He was always a cerebral player and it’s no surprise he transitioned to the dugout. He learned plenty from his days on the field under managers like Terry Francona and found a true mentor as a bench coach in San Diego under former big-league pitcher Bud Black.
But Roberts has been tested early. Ethier and Brandon McCarthy endured spring training injuries and have yet to play. The Dodgers endured a six-game losing streak at home – their first since 2011 – and it featured a 2-for-36 performance with runners in scoring position. And now he’s got major bullpen problems, unable to find much bridge work between his starters and closer Kenley Jansen.
Yes, patience has been a key so far.
“You live it and you preach it but you really have to live it,” Roberts said. “Even losing six straight, the coaching staff and myself made sure to come in the same way with the same energy and freshness. And I think players really respect that.”
Roberts’ built-in trust shows with his bullpen. Friday’s loss here was already the relief staff’s sixth of the season. Now, that’s not going to get much sympathy in Toronto, where the Blue Jays frittered away nine games in April. But it’s a major issue.
“I like our guys,” insisted Roberts. “There have been some very good innings, but if you look back at their outings they’re victims of one pitch, two bad pitches. But they’re big pitches. So those are things we obviously have to eliminate.”
Still, it’s not the recipe to repeat as a division champion either. The best thing about the Dodgers’ start so far is the struggles of the rest of the NL West. Through 25 games, the Dodgers were 12-13 – and tied for first place. They entered Saturday one game below .500 and only one game out.
Roberts started building trust in spring training as the Dodgers brought in motivational speakers to the clubhouse. One of the drills saw the manager lie on the clubhouse floor with a block on his chest and a towel over his face. The speaker then perfectly clubbed the block with a sledgehammer, leaving Roberts undeterred as the players roared.
“I was showing complete trust in a guy I had just met five minutes ago,” Roberts told the Los Angeles Times that day. “I hope the players and coaches will trust me like that.”
Puig not scared
Dodgers outfielder Yaisel Puig has certainly enjoyed his first trip to Canada. He attended the Raptors’ playoff game Thursday night after catching salmon on Lake Ontario earlier in the day during an expedition with teammate Adrian Gonzalez. And Friday morning, he did the Edgewalk, the hang-from-the-CN-Tower thrillseek nearly 1,200 feet above the ground.
Puig tweeted and posted pictures to Instagram with a solid hashtag game: “Walked around the #EdgeWalk at the CN Tower today, 1,168 ft in the air! #PuigNotScared #niceview #niceday.”
Bench coach Bob Geren also did the walk but Roberts stayed on firm ground while the Dodgers pondered if they could throw a baseball into Rogers Centre from that height.
“We figured it out if you throw it 50 mph, we could land it on the infield here,” Roberts said. “We had a little math session and it was kind of cool. I was not up there however. I don’t do heights.”
One issue: The Rogers Centre roof remains locked this weekend because the temperatures have not been warm enough to test all its parts.
Pondering deal not made
Former Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos, now a senior adviser with the Dodgers, met the Toronto media Friday night before the series opener and broke little new ground over his sudden departure last fall after Mark Shapiro took over as team president. He did say he initially felt he was going nowhere but that changed when Shapiro took his new role on Sept. 1.
Anthopoulos added that his greatest what-if about last season was if the Blue Jays had acquired utility man Ben Zobrist at the trade deadline, rather than Zobrist heading to Kansas City to help the Royals win the World Series.
“It may have influenced some other deals, and we may have not had the players to make the other deals,” he said. “But that’s probably the one I thought about the most. What if we had done it? You get to Game Seven in Kansas City, who the heck knows what happens? I haven’t dwelled on it that much, but that’s probably the one I’ve thought about a little bit.”
Around the horn
• Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman to the New York Daily News after his team’s 8-15 April: “I’m frustrated as hell. It was a horrific month of April where we underperformed in almost every category. … In the immediate term, the answers are right here in guys fixing themselves. Guys on this roster, they’re capable of more and they’re better. It’s a lot of sleepless nights right now, it’s hard to watch and we are better than this, but we have to start proving it sooner than later. We’re about to see if this team is better than this.”
• Thursday night in Chicago, the Cubs hosted the Nationals while the White Sox hosted the Red Sox. According to Stats Inc., it was the first time in major-league history that four first-place teams played in the same city on the same day.
• Goo Goo Dolls lead singer Johnny Rzeznik appeared on MLB Network’s “MLB Central” last week to pump the release of the band’s new album, “Boxes.” Asked by host and former big leaguer Mark DeRosa if he attended Bisons games, Rzeznik said, “I went a lot. I lived there for a while when it was Pilot Field. That was great. That was such a big deal, because they had the minor league baseball stadium downtown. It’s so much fun.”
DeRosa said he always enjoyed the ballpark’s atmosphere as well and added that he and teammates “partied in Buffalo.” DeRosa played here from 1999-2001 with the Richmond Braves and it seems like he likely found Chippewa Street during his tours through town before his 1,200-game career in the big leagues.
• The Bisons were 44-24 in their previous three Aprils as a Blue Jays affiliate but only went 10-13 this season, thanks mostly to an offense that batted just .230, averaged 3.6 runs per game, endured three shutouts and was held to two runs or less 11 times. It’s a bad omen because the Herd’s May record the last three years is 37-50, including just 11-18 last year.
• Former Canisius College standout Brett Siddall is off to a fast start as an outfielder with Class A Beloit of the Midwest League in the Oakland chain. In his first crack at full-season pro ball, Siddall entered the weekend batting .323 with strong across-the-board numbers: A .396 on-base percentage, .441 slugging percentage and .837 OPS. Siddall, Oakland’s 13th round pick last year, is the son of Blue Jays radio analyst and former major league catcher Joe Siddall. He was the player of the year last season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.