WASHINGTON, June 14, 2011 — It took a whole year and then 28 more days. Exactly 162 games, a full season’s worth, since the player who is the face of the Baltimore Orioles had taken the field during a live game. Over 20 months since Brian Roberts had smacked himself in the helmet with a bat after striking out. A whole lifetime had seemed to pass for the Orioles since their long-time starting second baseman had nearly ended his career when he slammed his head into first base at Fenway Park while making one of his trademark headfirst dives, adding a second severe concussion to the first.
Thirteen dark months were mere talking points on Tuesday night, however, as Roberts returned triumphantly to second base and the leadoff batting spot, going 3-for-4 with a trio of singles and an RBI in Baltimore’s 8-6 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. His traditional drive to gain the next base at all costs was notably absent, but that was to be expected from a player who wasn’t sure of he’d ever be able to function normally again, let alone play baseball.
If a dramatic return wasn’t enough, Roberts also found himself in a foreign position on the only team he had ever played for in the majors. Since he made his major-league debut in 2001, the Orioles had never cracked .500 or finished higher than third in the AL East. But when he returned after a year away, he came back to a team sitting at 34-26 that had only recently slipped from first to second place in their division.
Much of the first two-plus months of the 2012 baseball season has been devoted to figuring what new factor is making the surprising Orioles tick. The two biggest reasons: the longball and late-game firemen. Roberts has never fit into either of those categories, and he can return to a level anywhere near when he was stealing 30-40 bases a year, he will provide a much-needed dimension to a two-trick show.
Since his first full season in 2004, Roberts has been a model of consistency, one of few constants, and perhaps the only positive constant, for the Orioles. His injury in May of 2011 appeared potentially career-ending for a time, and fueled speculation that Baltimore would finally completely teardown and start afresh.
Rather, his struggle was a rallying point for a similarly struggling ballclub. Even as the Orioles continued down a path that eventually took them to their fifth-straight last-place finish, Roberts was becoming a source of hope.
Some teams, enjoying rare success, might be tempted to jettison a player whose tentative return might upset the ingrained order of things. When said player is on the wrong side of 30 (Roberts is 34) and working his way back from a life-altering injury that temptation is all the greater.
Instead, Robert Andino shuffled into a utility role to make way for a triumphant return. Roberts would be the first to say that one game doesn’t make a hero but lifting his Orioles to a valuable win was the best return anyone could have hoped for.
A return to normality in the midst of irregularity means that a player’s fortunes will always bounce up and down. In his second game back, Brian Roberts went 0-for-5 and struck out twice. But twin truths were still present: the Orioles continued their winning ways, 7-1, and B-Rob was back, ready to put the persistent drive of 2009 into the startling success of 2012.
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