How the Cubs are helping a family member through a terrible time
He walked into the Cubs’ clubhouse in San Francisco last Friday, scared and nervous, as if he was a little kid.
Mike Roberts, 66, has been in baseball more than 45 years. But he had never traveled with a major-league team, not even with his son, former major leaguer Brian Roberts. He certainly had never walked into a major-league clubhouse during the regular season and put on a uniform.
Who was he, anyway?
In the early 1970s, Roberts had been a catcher at North Carolina and then in the low minors with the Royals. He went on to become the head coach at Carolina for 21 seasons and UNC-Asheville for one, and the coach for the Cotuit Kettleers of the collegiate Cape Cod League for the past 13 summers.
With the Cubs, Roberts is a roving minor-league consultant, the kind of guy who is invaluable to a major-league organization, yet hardly touches the major-league limelight.
Baseball tears such men away from their families, often for months at a time. But at times of great need, baseball also can embrace such men, nurture them, nourish them.
On Feb. 10, Roberts lost his wife of nearly 46 years, Nancy. Just five days after her funeral, he reported to the Cubs’ spring-training camp in Mesa, Ariz. From the moment he arrived, players, coaches and executives throughout the organization squeezed him tightly, even though he only joined the Cubs in the fall of 2014. Even the wives, fiancees and girlfriends of major leaguers got involved, cooking meals for Roberts throughout spring training.
"They were the family I needed," Roberts said.
And the support did not end there.
Roberts joined the Cubs for their visits to San Francisco and St. Louis at the invitation of Theo Epstein, the team’s president of baseball operations. Epstein had asked Roberts to join the team for a road trip and also visit Wrigley Field for a home series.
They were the family I needed.
The current trip was ideal, and not just because Roberts could see the Cubs play good teams in great baseball cities. Bobby Evans, the Giants’ general manager, had been one of Roberts’ student managers at North Carolina. Mike Matheny, the Cardinals’ manager, is an alumnus of Roberts’ team in the Cape Cod League.
In San Francisco, Roberts joined the Cubs’ players and staff in donning the newest T-shirt that Cubs manager Joe Maddon is selling on his "Respect 90" charity website, a hot pink number that says, "If you look hot, wear it."
He went to dinner with Maddon and about 10 other members of the Cubs’ family on Saturday, discovering that though he and Maddon did not previously know each other, they shared many connections in the game.
He even shagged flyballs in the outfield during batting practice in San Francisco, drawing the wrath of Giants fans when he threw most balls back toward the diamond, rather than flip them into the stands.
"I would never have believed how many people would not like me very quickly," Roberts said, laughing.
The Cubs did not seek attention for what Roberts calls the best experience of his baseball life. I learned of his story only after he re-introduced himself to me behind the batting cage Friday afternoon; we had gotten to know each other after the Orioles drafted Brian in 1999, when I was with The Baltimore Sun.
"These sorts of things happen in organizations more than people know about," said Brian, who played for 13 seasons with the Orioles and one with the Yankees. "But I can’t say I’ve been part of a major-league organization that had something like this going on with a minor-league roving instructor, not even a full-time employee."
Early in spring training, Cubs right-hander Jason Hammel came home and mentioned the Roberts family’s loss to his wife, Elissa.
Hammel and fellow Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta both had been teammates of Brian’s with the Orioles. They knew Mike, and their wives were close with Brian’s wife, Diana.
"I was at the field a couple of days later," Elissa said. "I saw Mr. Roberts. I went over and gave him a big hug and just said that I was so sorry to hear of Nancy’s passing. I still remember them at Camden Yards on family day. They were such a beautiful couple.
"He got to talking. He had tears in his eyes. And I never felt my heart ache so badly for somebody else. I just wanted to take away his pain."
Elissa said that she and Mike talked for a good while on a back field at the Cubs’ training complex. At one point, she said, Ben Zobrist stopped by and hugged Roberts, asked how he was doing. Roberts promised Zobrist that he would return to Bible study, but said that he hadn’t been sleeping well.
The details of Nancy’s death only added to the tragedy. As Mike put it, "she passed away in a manner that should not have happened."
In Jan. 2015, Nancy contracted a rare infection known as Mycobacterium abscessus while undergoing open-heart surgery at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C. Her incision never healed. She died 13 months later at age 66.
I don’t know, something just told me, I have to do something.
The family is considering legal action, Mike said.
Elissa, through her conversations with Mike, said she could sense not only his sorrow, but also the adoration he had for Nancy. Elissa’s emotions, too, were raw; her mother, Laurie Nichols, was recovering from cancer and had just completed her final round of chemotherapy.
Jason Hammel said it his wife’s nature to help others. For the rest of the day, Elissa could not get "Mr. Roberts" out of her head.
"That night when I got home, I couldn’t sleep," Elissa said. "I ended up sending a group text to all the wives on the team at 11:30 at night.
"I don’t know, something just told me, I have to do something. I remember Brian and Diana and I love all of them. And I could not imagine how his days were once he got home from the ballfield and the distractions were gone from work."
Roberts was staying at a nearby Residence Inn. He mentioned to Elissa that he also was not eating well — "just one banana and drinking water, that was it," she said. She asked if it would be OK if she arranged some meals for him, telling him, "You could start to feel better with your body and hopefully your mind will follow."
Roberts said he was embarrassed that he would need such help. But he already had lost 12 pounds, down to about 156. He accepted the offer, and Elissa sprung into action.
"I reached out to the wives and said, ‘Here’s what’s going on. There is somebody in the organization, very well respected. We know his son. If anybody has interest in helping …’ I just kind of organized it and got a bunch of girls to say yes."
Arrieta’s wife, Brittany, donated a cooler. The women delivered the meals to the hotel every Monday and Thursday. Roberts would put the meals in his refrigerator at the hotel, and for the final month of spring training, they would carry him through the week.
Besides Elissa, the "cookers" included Jon Lester’s wife, Farrah; Kyle Hendricks’ fiance, Emma; Neil Ramirez’s wife, Tiffany, and Zac Rosscup’s wife, Mindy. Travis Wood’s wife, Brittany, made Easter dinner. Javier Baez’s girlfriend, Irmarie, provided cupcakes and sweets.
Roberts said he placed handwritten thank-you notes to the players and their significant others in the players’ lockers. He also wrote a note to Maddon saying he was amazed by the way so many different people had reached out to him.
Zobrist was one — Roberts described him as "phenomenal … such a strong Christian." Arrieta was another — Roberts would watch him do Pilates in the morning, then ask the pitcher’s instructor to work with him for a few minutes; he now plans to hire a Pilates instructor for his Cape Cod League pitchers this summer.
Roberts also spoke with reliever Justin Grimm, who had played for him on the Cape. Jimmy Gonzalez, the Cubs’ manager at Class A South Bend, gave him a hug almost every morning. Tim Cossins, the Cubs’ catching coordinator, was another empathetic soul.
All teams try to promote a family environment. Most are successful at providing it. But Roberts said that he has been "blown away" by the Cubs’ efforts, from owner Tom Ricketts to Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer to the executives with whom he works most closely, senior vice-president of player development and scouting Jason McLeod and director of player development Jaron Madison.
Then there are the Cubs’ players — and their wives, fiances and girlfriends.
You’re alone. There is nobody to call. That’s been tough.
Elissa Hammel, in addition to organizing and helping cook the spring-training meals, presented Roberts with a necklace that included Nancy’s initials — N.R.R., for Nancy Richbourg Roberts — and the inscription, "A piece of my heart has wings."
"He said it provided so much comfort because she was close to his heart," Elissa said. "He was going to wear it for the rest of his life."
Acts of kindness help, but even the most touching gestures can ease the loss of a loved one only so much.
For Roberts, the pain of losing Nancy is still fresh. And on Monday night, his grief took another turn.
Earlier that day, Roberts had told me that Nancy’s mother, Ruby Richbourg, 94, was unlikely to live much longer.
Later, he sent me a text.
"My wife’s mother died tonight, I believe, of a broken heart," Roberts wrote. "She was lovely and vibrant on Feb. 20, at the funeral. But losing her daughter was just too much."
Roberts remained with the Cubs in St. Louis — funeral arrangements for his mother-in-law had not yet been set, and he had planned to fly home to North Carolina on Wednesday, anyway.
The chartered flights, sumptious post-game spreads and other accoutrements of the major-league lifestyle are fleeting.
It’s remarkable how many great quality people we have in the clubhouse and how everyone looks out for one another.
Life goes on.
The 10-week Cape Cod League season will begin next month, providing another distraction, but mornings and evenings remain difficult, Roberts said. He called Nancy every night on the frequent occasions when they were apart — every night, for almost 46 years.
Mike’s daughter, Angie, lives with her family in Dallas. Brian lives with his family in Sarasota. Mike said he does not want to call them often, knowing they are busy, knowing they are dealing with their own grief.
"You’re alone," he said. "There is nobody to call. That’s been tough."
Nancy, like most baseball wives, kept the family organized, kept Mike’s life and their children’s lives in order, assisting Brian and Angie even after they became adults.
Rockies manager Walt Weiss, who played for Mike at North Carolina, said Nancy was like a second mom to all of the Tar Heels, too.
"She was always the stabilizer," Brian said. "She had such a great servant heart."
Mike, as a coach and instructor, shares many of those qualities. "He wants to help anybody and everybody that he’s around," Arrieta said. "I’ve seen that for a number of years."
His plan is now is to do even more.
The hardest word is, ‘final.’ You can’t bring her back.
Mike recently completed a three-year run as director of sports management at Asbury University, a Christian liberal arts institution in Wilmore, Ky. He no longer wants to teach classes and grade papers. All he wants is to remain on the field – and impart new wisdom.
Mike said he plans to emphasize to Cubs minor leaguers and his players on the Cape that they need to talk to their wives, honor them, cherish them, savor every moment they are together.
"The hardest word is, ‘final,’" he said. "You can’t bring her back."
His trip with the Cubs was unforgettable. His visit to Wrigley presumably will occur later this summer. Perhaps, as Brian suggested, the Cubs are treating Mike special in part because of his long background in baseball, the connections he made on his own and through his son.
"Maybe it doesn’t happen without that," Brian said. "But it doesn’t matter the way it happened."
Epstein, the driving force behind the trip, deflected credit to others in the organization, making specific mention of the major-league players.
"It’s remarkable how many great quality people we have in the clubhouse and how everyone looks out for one another," Epstein said. "Those guys saw Mike dealing with pain and loss and reached out with helping hands and compassionate hearts.
"It is not a surprise. We are lucky to have players who care about each other. They have created a very welcoming culture."
The hole in Roberts’ family cannot be replaced. But during the past several months, he has drawn comfort from people he never imagined — people in his larger family, the Cubs’ family, the extended baseball family.
"It’s gotten me through, to be honest with you," Mike Roberts said. "It’s really gotten me through."