Column: Resilient Dave Roberts is World Series winner again


Long ago, when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts led a high school football team in San Diego County, the offense’s tactics called to mind medieval scenes involving a battering ram. See the besieged fortress. There is much grunting and repetitious coordinated effort — heave… ho! —before, after the umpteenth blow, the rampart collapses.

It didn’t matter that Roberts, the quarterback, was an accurate passer. Smashmouth football. That’s what the Longhorns of Rancho Buena Vista called it.

The main thing was to persist. Opponents knew a run play was coming. Defenders often “stoned” the rusher. Fumbles happened. Roberts and teammates pressed forward. They broke through—sometimes early, sometimes late, but almost always.

At San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, where they’d traveled south from Vista, they won the 1989 CIF San Diego Section championship game. All told, they amassed 80 rushing touchdowns, a county record. “Dave kind of willed the rest of the team to do well,” Craig Bell, the team’s coach, said last year.

Tuesday night, in another championship game, wearing jersey No. 30 instead of No. 10, Roberts directed the Dodgers to a breakthrough victory of their own, a World Series clincher in Game 6 played under a roof to avoid football weather in pigskin-loving Texas.

It was a long time coming, for both Roberts and the franchise.

Roberts, the team’s manager, had gone to four World Series tournaments in his four tries since leaving the Padres after five seasons as a coach.

Those Dodgers teams each lost to the club that won the World Series.

When the final out came Tuesday, through a called third strike from lefty Julio Urias, the 48-year-old Roberts pushed back from a dugout rail and raised both arms in a touchdown signal.

He peeled off his cap and hugged bench coach Bob Geren, a fellow San Diegan who played football and baseball for Clairemont High before going to Princeton and the Padres as a first-round draftee. (Another San Diego high school product, University High alum Mark Prior, is the Dodgers pitching coach.)

“This is our year!” Roberts shouted during the trophy ceremony, repeating his mantra after his team won the League Championship Series.

He added: “These players right here showed what toughness is all about. Resiliency.”

The adjectives describe the Dodgers manager, a cancer survivor, a 27th-round draft pick out of UCLA who played 10 big league seasons, long after a severe knee injury convinced him to give up football, where Bell and Roberts figured he could reach the NFL as a defensive back or receiver.

Does it say something about Roberts that he did what six predecessors didn’t do in leading the Dodgers to their first World Series title since Tommy Lasorda’s team upset the 1988 A’s behind Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser? That his team’s 13 postseason victories were the most in a World Series tournament?

The Dodgers eliminated the clubs that were second (Rays) and third (Padres) in winning percentage in this shortened season.

After falling behind three games to one, they won the pennant against a Braves team that was second in runs scored in the season and posted an ERA of 0.92 through two playoff rounds.

Go back to his playing days and you’ll find a similar thread.

After former Padres executive Theo Epstein snagged him from the Dodgers at the 2004 trade deadline, Roberts swiped a critical base for the Red Sox in the ALCS, when the Yankees knew he would be running. Boston would complete its historic comeback from three games down and go on to its first World Series title since 1917.

The late Kevin Towers brought Roberts back to San Diego weeks later, obtaining him in a trade. Towers quipped that Epstein haggled with him as if Roberts, a middling center fielder with meager slugging power, was a modern “Willie Mays.” But Roberts gave the Padres two good seasons that coincided with the franchise winning consecutive West titles for the first time, in 2005-06.

He excited with his playmaking, amassing 13 triples and 49 stolen bases for the ’06 team, still the most recent Padres club to win a Divisional Series game. Playing up his defense from him, he moved to left field, providing extra range to the best defensive team the Padres have fielded the past two decades.

The lasting image of his season was a leg bruise of many colors and multiple weeks, courtesy of a concrete border Roberts banged into, chasing a flyball at Anaheim Stadium.

Four years later, a new opponent surfaced: Hodgkin’s lymphoma, sending Roberts to cancer wards for prolonged treatment. I have reported “clean” cancer screenings through the next several years.

The Dodgers had won three West races in a row when team ownership hired Roberts, who otherwise may have been the runner-up to former Dodgers farm director Gabe Kapler, since hired and fired by the Phillies. His predecessor, Don Mattingly, was unable to reach the World Series. Like Roberts would, he often asked too much of ace Clayton Kershaw in the postseason.

In Roberts’ second season, the Dodgers won their first pennant since 1988, only to lose in seven games to the Astros. Don’t put that one on Roberts. The Astros were found by MLB to have cheated by using video during home games to signal pitches. Not reporting the systemic cheating cost Astros manager AJ Hinch, a friend and former Padres colleague to Roberts, his job.

Losing a year later to the Red Sox, clearly the better team, shouldn’t have badly marred Roberts’ track record, but two of his pitching decisions in that World Series earned him plenty of credible blame. He made highly suspect decisions last October in the Divisional Series clinching loss to the Nationals. The front office stood by him.

A report card on “Doc” Roberts, the manager: Give him A grades for his people skills, for managing the egos of his players while having several of them play different positions or alternate between starting and relief, and for dealing with a sizable press corps and a front office that resembles a large think tank. His game management of him has fluctuated, earning him a C-minus for postseasons before this one, when he gets a B.

Bear in mind, his in-game decisions come after daily collaborations with an analytics-driven front office.

Roberts has a .615 winning percentage with the Dodgers in the regular season, calling him for Joe McCarthy for first among managers with at least 500 games.

Admit it: His .585 win rate in the postseason, across 65 games, is better than you would’ve guessed.

The Dodgers are world champions again because they were, by no small margin, the most talented team in 2020.

Roberts will laugh off the “Doctober” label Los Angeles media have floated. For the Parents, he represents an obstacle not to be underestimated.