SARASOTA, Fla. -- When he finally walks out of the visitors' clubhouse at Tropicana Field, down the tunnel steps and onto the turf come April 2, Brian Roberts won't forget how he got here.
Roberts will try to remember, while standing down the third-base line for his first Opening Day in three years, the nearly 1,100 days that have passed since he last occupied second base for the Baltimore Orioles in a season-opening game. He will recall the sleepless nights, the dark times he thought he had played for the last time and the moments of desperation when even living a normal life seemed out of reach.
And at some point Tuesday night, perhaps during the national anthem or pregame introductions, Roberts will stop reminiscing about the ups and downs of a stellar career marred with concussions and last season's hip surgery. He will look around at the long line of teammates and coaches standing there with him and feel the emotion of being here -- healthy, happy and ready to help the Orioles.
"I've always tried to be OK with whatever was going on," said Roberts, the longest-tenured Oriole who hasn't played a full season since 2009. "Not that it was fun by any means, but I've always believed that what was going on was for a reason and God was doing it through the process. And if I never did make it back, I felt like I needed to get back to a place where I was OK with that mentally. That baseball wasn't the end-all be-all. At one point, I just wanted some normalcy in my life back, and then when baseball started to come back, yeah it's been something that has been incredible.
"To feel the way I do, and have it come back as much as it has, it's been as much as I could ask for."
To say Roberts was expected to get here would be foolish, even by the 35-year-old's standards. There were whispers he was working out this winter, hopes that he would be a full-go as scheduled this spring. But to bank on his productivity -- and moreso, his health -- had the organization, and most of baseball, skeptical.
"It was a process, I think, this spring," said Roberts, who has been upbeat, extremely friendly and ever-present in the Orioles' clubhouse since camp began. "I still had some inhibitions last year when I came back, for sure. There was a little bit of timidness at the beginning of spring, but as soon as I got out there and played a couple games, things started to flow, I started to play more instinctually, and I feel like that's the spot I'm in now. I'm doing things the way I used to; instincts are taking over."
Roberts has played in 15 games this spring, diving in the field with no issues and posting a .333/.400/.489 batting line. He has gone on road trips and stolen bases, diving headfirst into the bag and getting right back up. It's been a welcome sight for an Orioles organization with no real solution without their second baseman the past three seasons.
"If you had told me that on March whatever, this is where we'd be with him, I would have been real happy with it," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, whose biggest problem has been slowing Roberts down. "I didn't know completely what to expect. I knew that everything else was going well, but until you get in these games three or four days in a row, you don't know. I like the fact that he fouled a ball off his ankle pretty hard and was back in there the next day ready to go."
A healthy Roberts could be just what the O's need, strengthening the roster and helping balance out a lineup without a true cleanup hitter. A veteran of 12 Major League seasons, Roberts is a career .280/.351/.413 hitter with 339 doubles and 275 stolen bases in 343 attempts. Considered one of the game's premier leadoff hitters, Showalter hasn't committed to using Roberts atop the order -- with Nick Markakis, Nate McLouth and Nolan Reimold other options -- although Roberts' presence will change the complexion of the lineup regardless of where he hits.
"He's an important part, he gets everybody going," center fielder Adam Jones said of Roberts. "When he's on base, I know he's a little older now, but still, people throwing over, he causes attention. That's what you want. You want the pitcher for a split-second to have a little different awareness on the hitter. If they're thinking about him, they might hang me a slider, they might throw a fastball that that has more of a break. [I] get a little bit better pitches to hit when he's on base.
"He's ready. I think he's ready."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less