Age only a number for D-backs' Roberts
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Ryan Roberts added a rosy red heart and the word “Mom” to the artwork on his right triceps this winter, a tribute to his mother, Caroline, although the tattoo will stay hidden from general view unless Roberts rips his jersey off like he did on his game-winning grand slam last September.
His drive and passion are more visible. He wears them on his sleeve.
"He’s a dirtbag," said a major league scout who has worked in the NL West for the last 25 years.
Roberts was hardly the only one who played that way last year, but his visibility and outward emotion elevated him to the poster guy for the new, gritty D-backs.
After changing everything from his diet to his dental hygiene the previous winter, Roberts won the starting job at third base in May and finished the season with 19 home runs, 65 RBIs and 18 stolen bases. He was that close to joining teammates Chris Young and Justin Upton with a 20/20 season; they were two of the six NL players who got there.
So for the first time in 10 pro seasons, Roberts enters spring training with a roster spot secured, although he has not taken that to the field.
His career year came at age 30, his first season as a starter. While some wonder if age will be a factor in his ability to build on his strong year moving forward, the Diamondbacks and others do not see that as an issue. It basically gets down to a skill set.
"He can hit a fastball. He can play," the scout said. "Some people (outside baseball) might not care for the tattoos, but they don’t mean anything."
Count Gibson among the believers, in part because he has lived it. The 1988 NL MVP? The fist-pumping walk-off home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series -- the one Roberts so colorfully mimicked while rounding the bases after his walkoff slam beat the Dodgers in the 10th inning last Sept. 27?
Gibson turned 31 five months earlier.
"You can look at it a couple of ways," Gibson said. "He is 31, he has experience. He knows what he is doing now. Thirty-one isn’t that old. That’s the prime of your career. Thirty-eight, it’s a little different," Gibson said.
"He fits into my schematic very nicely."
Roberts, who will turn 32 on Sept. 19, approaches the age/experience balance the same way.
"Age doesn’t matter to me. I think age is something that is just how long you’ve been here. I don’t think it really dictates performance. I don’t think it dictates when you can break out. It can get better. As long as you train and take everything seriously and try to eat the proper foods and get your rest, I don’t think age really matters," he said.
"There are guys that are 18 that can break into the big leagues. When I was 18, I couldn’t have played in the big leagues. Time tells with everybody, and everybody will play it out in their own way. I really don’t worry about that kind of stuff. I try to control me and do what I do. Some people can perform at 40. Some people can’t perform at 40. I don’t really worry about what other people do. That’s for all you guys to look at and the numbers for you to do.
"For me, it’s just all about what I can do."
It may be unusual, but it is not unprecedented for a player to blossom late. Jose Bautista, 31, was an afterthought for several seasons in Pittsburgh before turning into a home run machine in Toronto, and starting pitchers Tim Stauffer and Brendon McCarthy are examples of players who have come on later in their careers.
Roberts had 482 at-bats last season after getting 398 combined in his previous five seasons with Toronto, Texas and the D-backs. He hit .258 with 25 doubles and 66 walks, and only Upton, Migeul Montero and Gerardo Parra had a higher on-base percentage than Roberts' .341 among players who spent the full season with the D-backs.
"Getting playing time and logging at-bats is the key. The more and more you can play and the more and more at-bats you get, you have time to catch hot strikes and ride those out. The mentality and the grind is still there, but you have time to get through everything or ride the highs out," Roberts said.
"It gives you time to get out of slumps. It gives you time to regroup after a bad series. You can come in and turn it around the next series. There is no in-between. Last year, I was blessed to be able to have the chance to do that."
Roberts got his first big payday in the offseason when he and the D-backs settled on a one-year, $2.0125 million contract to avoid arbitration. Other than that, Roberts insists nothing has changed.
"I don’t want to change anything that is not broke. Just trying to tweak the bad and keep the good going," he said.
"There was some. In this game, there is always enough to where you can get better. It’s a game of inches. It’s not a game of perfection, but it is a game of always getting better."
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