30 June, 2005

For Cotuit's Roberts, love of baseball a family affair

Cotuit Kettleers' Manager Mike Roberts is buttons-popping proud of the "backyard baseball" mentality for which his college and Cape League teams have become known. 

He's also proud of where he learned that style of play: in his own backyard, playing the game with his dad. 

"He taught me everything I know about baseball," says Roberts of his father, Edd Roberts, who died March 20 at the age of 93. "He played catch with me, played Whiffle-ball with me, just encouraged me." 

Roberts says his father, who owned his own business and worked almost to his 93rd birthday, was the type of man who juggled his schedule to catch his son's ball games and who made sure his sons' teammates had a ride home or decent meal, even if he ended up providing those things himself. 

"He loved baseball, even if he didn't know who was playing," says Roberts, now in his second year at the helm of the Kettleers. "I was really blessed to have him around for as long as I did." 

Roberts, who also coached the Wareham Gatemen to the playoffs in 1984 and 2000, is dedicating this season to the memory of his father. 

"He helped me and hundreds of young men like me," said Roberts as he gathered up his gear following a recent home game at Elizabeth Lowell Park. 

Currently head baseball coach at Oglethorpe University in Georgia, Roberts has helped a few young men himself, compiling a collegiate coaching record of 850-450-3 in the process. From 1976 until 1998, he served as head coach at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and spent 1999 and 2000 as head coach of UNC-Asheville. His teams have made nine NCAA postseason appearances and two appearances in the College World Series. 

Roberts preaches and teaches "clean but aggressive play" with an emphasis on speed and doing the little things right. His 1984 and 2000 Gatemen teams each led the Cape League in stolen bases and the 2000 squad even tied the league's all-time season record in that category. Last year's Kettleers led the league with 75 stolen bases. This year's team also has players capable of stealing a base or two or bunting for a base hit when they spot the opportunity. 

"That's just the way I've always coached," says Roberts. "This is Billy Martin, bunt-and-run, backyard baseball." 

Roberts has very simple rules for playing the game he loves and the first has nothing to do with physical ability. 

"You keep your language clean when you're out on the field," says Roberts, a native of Kingsport, Tenn., who was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1974. "Foul language disrespects the game of baseball." 

Roberts-run teams are also taught to dive for every groundball, run 90 feet hard every single time and practice through repetition, repetition, repetition. 

"When you're bored with it, that means you've got it," Roberts says. 

Baseball fans still unclear about Edd and Mike Roberts' ideas about "backyard baseball" can see for themselves just by checking out a Baltimore Orioles' game. There, they can watch Brian Roberts, Mike's son, having a career year for himself as the team's starting second baseman. 

"The most important aspect of a young man like Brian reaching his dream is that, hopefully, he can be an encourager to young men and women in middle or high school who feel like they're just average and have never been good at something," says Roberts. "When young people don't have a dream, then I can see why there's so many problems today." 

Roberts described Brian, a 1984 batboy for Wareham and a 1998 member of the Chatham A's, as an average player, somewhat on the small side, who kept working despite little success until the college years. That same player is now battling Red Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon for the American League batting crown. 

In fact, "Brian Roberts" was the answer to Cotuit's opening night trivia question, which asked which major leaguer held the season record for most doubles by a switch hitter. Brian's dad, too busy trying to notch a Kettleer victory, didn't hear the question. 

"I would've gotten it, though," he says, smiling.

By Craig Salters