Musings: Roberts Stole That Base

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

ROBERTS STOLE THAT BASE

The outloook wasn’t brilliant for the Beantown nine that night;

Down three games to none, ninth inning, end in sight.

So to the stricken multitude ignominy beckoned.

Then pinch runner Roberts made a dash for second.

The catcher came up throwing, Jeter raced to take the ball.

Roberts dove, the play was close. “Safe!” was the umpire’s call.

What happened next will be retold for years in baseball lore.

For that theft sparked a comeback unheard of before.

Mueller singled Roberts home and several innings later

Big Papi put the game away with a home run ‘tater.

The Sox went on to win game five, game six, and then game seven.

The Yanks were dead, the Cards got swept, and hello, baseball heaven.

There was singing, there was cheering, and heroes filled the place,

But it never would have happened had not Roberts stole that base.

Dave Roberts was just a spare part for the Boston Red Sox in 2004. He’d been acquired

on the July 31 st deadline from – guess where? – the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team he’d

be managing fourteen years later.

When he first arrived in Boston, he played more than originally anticipated because

starting right fielder Trot Nixon had back problems. As the season wound down, though,

Nixon’s health improved and Roberts found himself relegated to the bench, save for

occasional pinch running duties. He wasn’t used as a pinch hitter very often because he

had little or no power; just 23 home runs, lifetime – 2 of them with the Red Sox – over a

ten year career.

But he didn’t pout; he kept himself ready, both physically and mentally, just in case he

was needed in a big moment. He spent hours in the video room with first base coach

Lynn Jones, watching the tendencies of relief pitchers who might be on the mound if he

were called upon to run late in a game. Chief among those pitchers was the great Mariano

Rivera, the lights-out closer of the New York Yankees. Roberts thought about what

Dodgers’ base running coach Maury Wills, himself the perpetrator on 586 big league

steals, used to tell him, that someday he’d be called upon to steal in a big moment, when

everyone in the park knew that was his intention, and that he had to be ready to do it, no

matter what.

That big moment came in the ninth inning of game four of the ALCS against the

Yankees, and Roberts was ready. When he was put in the game to run for Kevin Millar,

who had walked, the Red Sox were behind, 4 to 3, and on the verge of being swept.

Everyone in the park and watching on television knew he was in there for one reason

only - to steal second base and get himself into scoring position. Sure enough, Hall of

Fame closer Mariano Rivera was on the mound. Rivera threw over to first three times

before delivering a single pitch to the batter, Bill Mueller. When Rivera finally did

deliver a pitch, Roberts took off. The rest is history. Mueller singled him home to tie the

game and Ortiz homered to win it in the twelfth.

It was an iconic moment which has never been forgotten by Red Sox fans. But what has

been forgotten is what happened the very next night, under eerily-similar circumstances.

It was less dramatic but just as important. The Sox were trailing again in an elimination

game, by the same score, 4 to 3, this time in the eighth inning. Roberts was put in the

game, again, to run for Millar. This time Tom Gordon was the Yankee pitcher. He, like

everyone else, was preoccupied by the threat to steal. When Roberts did eventually go,

the batter, Trot Nixon, singled and the speedy Roberts made it easily to third. Jason

Varitek then lofted a sacrifice fly, and Roberts tagged up to score the tying run. The Red

Sox went on to win, this time in the fourteenth inning, on a hit by – you guessed it –

Ortiz. Then it was back to Yankee Stadium and Curt Schilling’s bloody-sock game

followed by the seventh game blow-out. The sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series

was almost an afterthought.

That fifth game of the ALCS marked Dave Roberts’ last appearance in that post-season

and his last appearance in a Red Sox uniform. He’d been with the team less than three

months, didn’t even have an at-bat during the playoffs or World Series, and would be

traded to the Padres a few weeks later, but his place among Red Sox immortals had been

secured.

Roberts knew, of course, that he had done something big in the eyes of all Boston. The

reaction to him by fans during the duckboat parade made that obvious, but he didn’t have

a sense of the lasting impact he’d made until he got aff the plane after flying home to San

Diego in the wake of the great celebration. When he picked up his bag in the luggage

claim area, on it he found a message from a baggage handler back at Logan Airport who

had recognized the name on its ID tag. It said, “You’re going to be a Red Sox legend

forever.”

That baggage handler knew what he was talking about. The next time Roberts was in

Fenway Park was three years later, in 2007, when he was playing for the San Francisco

Giants. He received a prolonged and raucous ovation. Then, at this year’s World Series,

fourteen years after he stole that base, he was given roaring welcome backs every time he

was introduced. When was the last World Series any manager of an opposing team

stopped the show just by showing up? Never, I’d venture to guess.

The same thing would happen twenty years from now - when Roberts will be sixty-five.

In 2054, when the golden anniversary of the magical comeback is celebrated, Dave

Roberts, eighty-one, will be bathed in an ovation.

He is, in fact, a Red Sox legend forever.