Dave Roberts is on baseball’s biggest stage after directing the Los Angeles Dodgers to their first World Series since 1988. But Roberts wasn’t always in the spotlight’s glare.
Roberts once took a classic fall, which is light years from being a Fall Classic manager.
“It was a tough lesson,” Roberts said of his misstep.
While most are patting Roberts on the back, some recall when he was laid out. Roberts was entering his junior football season at Rancho Buena Vista High, when a knee injury waylaid the three-sport star.
Roberts had to skip a year of sports along his uneven path as a player, coach and manager. But here he is, leading the Dodgers to the World Series, with Game 3 on Saturday in Houston.
“When you miss a season your scholarships start to dwindle,” said Roberts, who remains a Cardiff resident. “And I wasn’t the biggest guy so there were a lot of doubters.’
Roberts rebounded his final year at RBV to earn a football scholarship at the Air Force Academy. But he had second doubts about orchestrating a triple-option attack. So he called his first prep baseball coach.
“He was all set up to go to Air Force,” said Butch Smith, Roberts’ junior varsity coach at Vista High.
Instead his passion for baseball set in. Roberts belatedly declined Air Force’s offer in the summer and circled back to baseball.
“But it was so late in the game that there were no baseball scholarships,” Roberts said.
Although Roberts had something nearly as good — Smith’s phone number on a land line.
Roberts dialed it, with a request for Smith to point his pickup truck toward UCLA. The undersized but over-the-top confident Roberts was eager to convince Bruins coach Gary Adams that he needed Roberts on his team.
“Coach Adams has never seen him swing at a pitch or catch a ball,” Smith said, with a hearty laugh.
Those are some big odds. But those knowing Roberts from his Little League days in Oceanside and Vista, he wouldn’t bet against him.
“We talked about it and went on up there,” said Smith, who coached for 10 years at Vista. “And we get there and I don’t say a word.”
Similar to what Adams saw, Smith was blown away by Roberts’ command of the room.
“He walked in there with that big smile — he was the class president — and just told coach Adams that they needed him and he was going to be on the team.”
Roberts convinced Adams and he went from walking in to becoming a walk-on. He ultimately earned his scholarship en route to being an All-American center fielder.
“Coach Adams had never seen him play,” said Smith, still amazed what Roberts accomplished. “But coach Adams could see he was something special.”
Steve Hargrave is another one of Roberts’ special coaches, working with Roberts his final three baseball seasons at RBV. Roberts, a quarterback, was also the point guard on the basketball team in his sophomore year.
“Not many of those guys around,” Hargrave said. “I just tried to stay out of his way not screw him up.”
Roberts never veers from thanking those aiding his remarkable journey. It’s one that’s gone from Roberts having a bum knee, to being a 28th-round pick, to being a Boston Red Sox icon for stealing a postseason base, to beating leukemia, to having the Dodgers in the World Series for the first time in 29 years.
But it was his freshman year, with Smith, Roberts often points to. They developed a bond which Roberts shared recently when the Dodgers wore tribute patches on their jerseys.
Roberts read: “Thank you Dad and Butch Smith.”
Roberts’ dad, Waymon, passed away in March.
“Butch Smith really mentored me and was like a second father,” Roberts said. “I wanted him to know what he meant to me. Outside of my family, he’s the biggest Dave Roberts fan.”
No one is getting a bigger thrill than Smith seeing Roberts on the Dodgers bench.
“You only meet so many people in your life like him,” Smith said. “I had never met anyone like him before or since. God just kind of dropped him in my lap.
“It’s like having your son be the manager of the Dodgers, that’s what it feels like. And the best part is it couldn’t happen to a nicer human being.”
Contact Jay Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @jparis_sports.
Sportswriter Jay Paris has written his “Sports Talk” column since joining the Coast News in 2013.
Paris, a Cardiff resident, is a longtime Southern California writer, getting his start with the Orange County Register before coming to San Diego in 1992 to cover the Chargers.
He had the Chargers beat for more than two decades with Oceanside Blade-Citizen, the North County Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, before being named a sports columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Paris has won numerous awards voted on by his peers in the Pro Football Writers of America. He has also been a staple on countless media platforms, everything from the KPBS to MLB Network and various radio outlets.
Paris is also the author of three books, with his latest one being, “Shohei Ohtani: The Amazing Story Of Baseball’s Two-Way Japanese Superstar.” He has also written “Game Of My Life Chargers” and “Game Of My Life Rams.”
He currently covers the NFL in Los Angeles for Forbes. com and is a contributor to USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow Jay on Twitter @jparis_sports