TAMPA, Fla. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Brian Roberts remembered back a decade ago, when he was standing on second base and Derek Jeter approached.
“He just said, ‘You can hit .300 in this league,'” Roberts recalled Monday. “To hear it from somebody like that, it kind of opened your eyes.”
Not that he took Jeter’s analysis too literally.
“I don’t think it’s just me. I think he does it to everybody,” Roberts said. “But for some reason when he tells it to you, you think you’re the most important person in the world.”
Now they’re teammates, and Roberts has a locker next to Jeter’s in the New York Yankees’ spring training clubhouse.
With a void at second base following the departure of Robinson Cano, the Yankees have given the position to Roberts, a two-time All-Star who made five trips to the disabled list totaling 481 days over the past four seasons. His many maladies included a strained abdominal muscle, pneumonia, two concussions (one self-inflicted), a groin strain, hip tear and hamstring strain.
“I know he hasn’t played a full season in the last few years and he’s obviously a guy that has some age on him, too, but my plan is to run him out there almost every day,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
Now 36, Roberts had hoped to be a Baltimore Orioles lifer, just like Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken Jr.
“I’ve come to love the city, the fans,” he said in February 2009 when the Orioles gave him a contract guaranteeing $48 million over five years. “This was the only place I wanted to be the rest of my career.”
It didn’t work out that way.
After hitting .283 in 2009 with 16 homers, 79 RBIs and a big league-high 56 doubles, he missed most of the following spring training with a herniated disk in his back. His first concussion was sustained on Sept. 27, 2010, when he knocked himself on the batting helmet with his bat after striking out in the ninth inning at Tampa Bay.
His total of 77 games last season was his highest since the injuries began, and the switch-hitter batted .249 with eight homers and 39 RBIs, posting a .312 on-base percentage. Baltimore made no effort to keep him after he hit .246 with 15 homers and 78 RBIs over the past four years. The offensive performance would have been decent but not spectacular had he compiled it over a single season.
“I don’t know that you can necessarily put great words on how frustrating it is to have to sit on the sidelines and watch,” Roberts said. “I’ve had numerous times over the last three or four years where I wondered if, for one, I’d be able to play again, and I think certainly going into last season I had no idea what the next year would hold, whether I would have a job in 2014, whether I wouldn’t, whether I’d want a job.”
New York signed him for the bargain price of $2 million, plus the chance to make $2.6 million in bonuses based on plate appearances. He’ll be counted on for offense, given that the Yankees had 114 RBIs from second base last year, tops in the majors, according to STATS.
“There’s going to be people that will want to look out there and say, ‘Well, he’s not Robby.’ And I’m not going to be Robby. I’m not going to try to be,” Roberts said. “I’m going to be Brian Roberts and, hopefully, that’s good enough most days.”
New York’s infield is more Take A Chance than Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. First baseman Mark Teixeira played just 15 games last year because of a hand injury, and Jeter’s broken ankle limited him to 17. With Alex Rodriguez serving a season-long drug suspension, Kelly Johnson figures to platoon at third with Brendan Ryan, Eduardo Nunez and possibly Scott Sizemore.
“It’s not the infield that we had in 2009,” Girardi said. “But we believe that there’s a lot of capable players in here to put up offensive and defensive numbers, and when you look at those numbers as a whole, they’re going to be pretty good.”
Roberts remains in touch with his former Orioles teammates.
“A lot of my closest friends in the world are there. So sure. I’ve talked to them all in the last couple days. Is it weird? Is it different? Do I miss them? Yeah,” he said before recounting his friendships with Jacoby Ellsbury, Jeter and Brian McCann.
After Roberts spent 13 seasons in Baltimore’s black and orange, the Yankees’ pinstripes will take getting used to. Like McCann, he heard many people tell him “anybody but the Yankees” when he was a free agent.
“You either love them or you hate them, right? And that’s OK,” he said. “Now I love them.”
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