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General Manager Kevin Towers appreciated Theo Epstein's invitation to be his guest at the World Series last fall, but he was looking for more from the Red Sox G.M. than a luxury-box view. As the two men entered Fenway Park before Game 1, Towers came right to the point. "After the Series is over," he told his friend Epstein, "I want Dave Roberts."
Ten weeks later Towers got his man. He traded outfielder Jay Payton, utilityman Ramon Vazquez, minor league pitcher David Pauley and $2.65 million to Boston for Roberts, a 32-year-old centerfielder and San Diego native. That might seem like a steep price for a player who was essentially discarded by the Dodgers at midseason and was primarily a pinch runner and defensive replacement in 45 games for the Red Sox, but Towers wanted the fleet Roberts to inject some badly needed speed into the San Diego lineup. Plenty of high-profile players changed teams during the off-season, but Roberts and his new employers think he can have as big an impact as any of the marquee names in new uniforms. "It's not about how much money you spend," Roberts says. "It's about getting the right pieces to fill in the holes."
The Padres were sundial slow last year, which was especially hard on their offense because their new home, Petco Park, turned out to be only slightly more conducive to home runs than Yosemite. San Diego hit fewer round-trippers (52) at home than any other National League team last year and finished 14th in the league in total homers (139). The primary power hitters-- Brian Giles, Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko--groused about crushing balls that died short of the wall at Petco. With new leadoff hitter Roberts running the bases, the Padres should have more chances to score without clearing the fence. "You take his speed, and add to it the fact that he's from San Diego and a good clubhouse guy, and it made perfect sense," Towers says of the trade.
Over the last three seasons Roberts has averaged 39 stolen bases-- Payton, his predecessor in centerfield, stole two last year--and he was caught only three times in 41 attempts in 2004. His most memorable theft last year came in Game 4 of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees and helped spare Red Sox Nation another cruel winter. Boston was on life support, trailing 4--3 in the bottom of the ninth and three outs from elimination, facing Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, when Roberts came in as a pinch runner and stole second. Bill Mueller singled him in with the tying run, and Boston won the game in extra innings. The rest, as you may have heard, really was history.
Although Roberts was the catalyst for one of the greatest postseason comebacks, he didn't play in the World Series, which is one of the reasons he welcomed the trade to the Padres. "I could see the writing on the wall that I wasn't going to be anything more than a fourth outfielder," he says. "I think I can contribute more than that. I wanted the opportunity to play every day, and when I heard about the trade, it was easy to see that San Diego would be the perfect place for me."
Roberts was available partly because his career on-base percentage of .335 isn't great for a table setter, and his throwing arm is average at best. Nevertheless the Padres' pitching staff will no doubt enjoy seeing Roberts run down balls in the wide outfield expanse at Petco. When he made a stretching, running catch of a Garret Anderson liner during a spring game against the Angels, several pitchers in the bullpen high-fived each other. "He's definitely going to make some of our pitchers want to buy him a steak dinner," manager Bruce Bochy says.
San Diego would like to see Roberts walk more--48 passes are the most he's had in a season--but once he's on base he's got the green light. The only thing that has slowed him down in the past has been a recurring hamstring injury, but he's hoping that a new Pilates regimen, which helped him shed about five pounds over the off-season, will eliminate that issue. "At least I should look a little better in my uniform," he says. The Padres already think he's a perfect fit. --P.T.