Bip Roberts was having a major league career that some players only dream of. He could play several positions. His career batting average was almost .300. He had played in the All-Star Game.
Then his phone rang early one morning last July and suddenly, baseball didn’t seem so important any more.
His 15-year-old son, Lantavio, had been in an automobile accident.
“We didn’t think he was going to make it,” Roberts says. “He was under for six days.”
Lantavio had been out with his older cousin, driving around the San Diego area in one of Roberts’ cars while he was in Kansas City, playing for the Royals.
“They took it out, joyriding, and flipped it, like teenagers will do,” Roberts says. “I thought it was just a teenager thing. But he almost died. It was the toughest thing I ever went through.”
Roberts flew home the next day. But the Royals ordered him back to Kansas City, and that soured his relationship with them.
“When got the call from the Royals … it just crushed me,” he says.
As a result, he fought bitterly with the Royals’ front office. His wife, Janina, finally had to persuade him to rejoin the team. If he made the team really angry, she reasoned, he might find himself out of work. What good would he be to his injured son then?
“She said, ‘Just do what they ask you to do,’ because she didn’t want any more grief,” Roberts says.
Lantavio pulled out of it six days later and is fine now. He’s working out and will play football again in the fall.
“I believe in God, and I believe that there are guardian angels,” Roberts says. “We lost his grandfather the December before, and I have to believe that it was his grandfather who pulled him out of that. I have to believe it, because it’s the only thing that makes any sense to me.”
About a month later, the Cleveland Indians, in the hunt for a championship, went looking for help down the stretch. They needed a utility man who could play more than one position. They needed a few extra hits. When the Indians called the Royals, they were only too happy to trade the 34-year-old Roberts for a promising young pitcher.
“So, I was kind of worn out by the time I got to Cleveland, mentally,” Roberts says. “I was drained.”
As soon as he got to Cleveland, the Indians told him he was going to play second base - a position he hadn’t played all year. Roberts struggled for a few weeks, making errors and hitting poorly.
He decided he needed to get into a comfort zone, and quickly. So he had his family join him in Cleveland.
“And then, all of a sudden, it just clicked,” Roberts ecalls. “It just clicked in. I got comfortable again.”
Roberts hit .309 for Kansas City and .271 in the final 23 games for Cleveland. He was solid in the World Series, hitting .273 and driving in four runs.
Still, the Indians didn’t want him back. But the Detroit Tigers were looking for a dependable hitter, and Roberts got another phone call.
The Tigers struck out 1,164 times last season - second-most in the American League. They were shut out 13 times, the most in the majors. Tigers general manager Randy Smith was determined to change that.
And he knew all about Roberts, whom Smith drafted in 1985 with the San Diego organization. Smith left for Colorado and Roberts was traded. But when Smith returned to the Padres in 1994 as general manager, he signed Roberts as a free agent.
In December, Smith signed Roberts as a free agent again.
“I just think he’s an excellent hitter and an exciting player to watch,” Smith says. “The only knock against Bip is his durability. There are days when he just can’t play.”
Roberts has been on the disabled list 10 times in his career. That means the Tigers - who will use him mostly as their designated hitter - must be careful not to overuse him.
“I try not to think about that,” manager Buddy Bell says. “Bip is just a special player. He’s a lot like Tony Phillips. He’s a guy you want in your lineup, somewhere, every day.”
Roberts played 120 games with the Royals and Indians last year. He hit .302 and stole 18 bases in 21 attempts. With men on base, Roberts hit .337.
It wasn’t always this way. When he first turned professional, Roberts was a straight pull hitter. But at 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, there wasn’t going to be much of a future pulling the ball. He needed help, but it didn’t come until he reached the major leagues.
While he was in the Padres organization, Roberts worked out with Gary Templeton, who taught him a hitting technique that stresses hard grounders and line drives. Until then, pitchers had been throwing away from Roberts, knowing he would just hit lazy fly balls.
He began practicing during the winter with Tony Gwynn. He tried to copy Gwynn’s successful swing.
“That’s the best you can do, right there,” Roberts said. “After that, I began hitting .300 consistently. And I know it’s because I worked out with him and watched everything he did and tried to incorporate what he did into my swing.
“I’m not Tony Gwynn, but I have a lot of the same mechanics. I try to do the same thing that he does.”
As spring training has unfolded, it appears Roberts has again found a solid level of comfort. He is playing for people he likes and trusts. He is surrounded by players who work as hard as he does.
“Believe me, my guardian angel is looking out for me,” Roberts says.