Soon after a concussion interrupted his baseball career, Brian Roberts was more concerned with simply living a normal life than returning to the game he loves.
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”There were times throughout the process that the future looked so bleak,” the Baltimore Orioles second baseman said Tuesday, hours before he was to play his first major league game in 13 months.
Roberts sustained a concussion while sliding into first base in a game against the Boston Red Sox on May 16, 2011. He had been sidelined before with a concussion, but this one was far more severe.
Burdened with headaches and dizziness, the two-time All-Star wondered if he would ever be able to do many of the simple things that most people take for granted.
”I haven’t started a family yet, I haven’t had kids yet. I have a wife that I want to love and support the rest of my life, and all those things take physical abilities to be able to do,” he said. ”Baseball is important, and my contract is important, things like that. But I would hope people would understand that was No. 1.”
The symptoms finally subsided, and now, after a lengthy rehabilitation that included a stint in the minor leagues, the 34-year-old Roberts is ready to be a baseball player again.
Baltimore activated Roberts from the 60-day disabled list Tuesday, optioned infielder Steve Tolleson to Triple-A Norfolk and transferred outfielder Nolan Reimold (back) to the 60-day DL.
Without a moment of hesitation, manager Buck Showalter penciled Roberts into his customary spot atop the batting order.
”A lot of guys with the challenges that Brian’s faced might have packed it in,” Showalter said. ”But he loves to play. He loves the game of baseball and loves the Orioles. I wouldn’t deny him the ability to do anything. There’s a little emotional lift for us getting him back. We’ve had a void in the leadoff spot for a while.”
Roberts couldn’t begin to explain how uplifting it felt to be back in the clubhouse as part of the Orioles.
”Just excited to be here, to walk into the locker room, and not just see the guys and feel like you’re one of them again,” he said. ”For a long time, I didn’t feel that way and today, I do, finally.”
Over the past year, Roberts spent more time with his doctor than with his teammates. Dr. Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program, always had confidence that Roberts would play baseball again.
Well, sort of.
”If I said I didn’t have any doubt, I’d be lying,” Collins said. ”There some tough times. But in my gut, I thought this day would come.”
Collins treats thousands of high school students for concussions on a yearly basis, and also provided treatment for Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby. But because no two cases are exactly alike, Collins treated Roberts unlike all the rest.
”You’re dealing with the brain, so there are different issues,” Collins said. ”You have to measure the individual.”
At the outset, Collins didn’t think about preparing Roberts to play baseball.
”It’s an incredibly frustrating process. Sports was not ever on the radar,” Collins said. ”He was in a dark place. But now, I’m proud and excited of where he’s at. He feels confident. It’s a special time.”
Collins had lunch with Roberts on Tuesday and intended to be at the game that night.
There’s no telling what lies ahead for Roberts, who loves to dive for balls and slide head-first into any base.
”I think the head-first dive will come when it’s right, at the right time on the bases,” he said, ”but I’m also not going to say that I’m not going to consider sliding feet-first more than I used to.”
Asked to consider the biggest challenge moving forward, Roberts replied, ”"Let’s hope getting hit in the head isn’t one. I’d be happy to stay away from having to clear that hurdle, I guess, but other than that, there’s not a whole lot of mental hurdles I have to clear.
”The only thing left to do is get out and play in a major league game. That’s the only thing I haven’t done. There’s going to be a different amount of excitement and energy involved in that, which will be the very last thing I think I’ll have to overcome.”
He joins a club that has been one of the biggest surprises of the year. After struggling through 14 straight losing seasons, the Orioles are contenders in the AL East.
”Hopefully I can come back and add something to the team,” he said. ”I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to run back out there one more time. For a long time, I never thought that that would actually happen.”