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From creatine to space-age contact lenses, Brian Roberts heard all the theories last year about how a 5'9" second baseman could possibly have 15 home runs at the All-Star break--he had never hit more than five in a season--and finish the season with a higher slugging percentage (.515) than Gary Sheffield. "You want to know what the secret to Brian's season was?" asks rightfielder Jay Gibbons, Roberts's workout partner and next-door neighbor in Baltimore. "Hard work. I get to the ballpark early and stay late, but he's always here when I get in and still here when I leave. Pound for pound, he's the strongest guy on the team."
Behind Roberts's power surge the Orioles started 42--28 and held first place in the division deep into June. Then came a 32--60 nosedive, which made Baltimore the first team since the 1978 A's to be both 14 games above .500 and 14 games below .500 in the same season. In just his third year as a starter, Roberts suffered no such drop-off. (For the record he says that he uses creatine in the winter to help recover from weight training and that he tried sun-glare-reducing contacts produced by Nike and Bausch & Lomb for a handful of games last summer.) He led AL second basemen in on-base-percentage-plus-slugging (OPS, .903) and was second among leadoff hitters in OBP (.384). But his breakout season ended horrifically on Sept. 20 when Yankees outfielder Bubba Crosby crashed into his outstretched left arm (the glove arm) on a play at first base, dislocating Roberts's elbow and tearing a tendon off the bone.
"I felt like my arm was going to fall off, so I was just trying to hold it," says the soft-spoken 28-year-old, recalling a moment that he has avoided watching on replay. As he walked off the Yankee Stadium field, he thought his career might be over. "It was devastating to have such a great season end like that," says Roberts, who had elbow surgery in late September, "but I just told myself, Well, here's just one more thing you're going to have to battle back from."
Roberts is familiar with adversity. As a child he suffered from a congenital heart defect that often left him fatigued; he's been healthy since undergoing surgery at age five. Because of his size he wasn't recruited by Division I schools out of Chapel Hill ( N.C.) High--except by North Carolina, where his father, Mike, was the coach.
In January, during four months of intense rehab at a training facility in Tempe, Ariz., Roberts had to learn how to catch again; a friend would stand a few feet from him and toss him baseballs underhanded. "I felt like I was five years old--everything was new to me again," says Roberts, who took his first batting practice swings on March 12 and appeared in his first spring game nine days later.
"When I was on vacation in Mexico [in December], I was too embarrassed to go to the workout room in my hotel because I could barely lift one-pound weights. Just in the two months since then I've come a long, long way."
The Orioles, who ranked 10th in the league in runs and eighth in OBP, will need another strong year from Roberts to avoid getting buried in baseball's best division. "We saw last year that as Roberts and [shortstop] Miguel Tejada go, so goes the team," says vice president of baseball operations Jim Duquette. "[Roberts] is one of the premier leadoff guys and brings an element of speed and getting on base that changes the entire dynamic of the offense."
Roberts was a feel-good story during an otherwise disastrous summer in Baltimore, from Rafael Palmeiro's positive steroid test to manager Lee Mazzilli's firing to Sammy Sosa's seasonlong struggles. The Orioles are eager to begin anew, but after failing to add a much-needed bat to the heart of the order, they will again struggle to score runs. The hope is that the young rotation, anchored by Erik Bedard, 27, and Daniel Cabrera, 24, will provide the foundation for the future. "We've made a conscious effort to build around our pitching," says Duquette. "Are we going to contend? I don't know, but I think we're on the right track."
It will take more than hard work to turn things around this year.