Former hurler Roberts passes away
Southpaw's attitude toward life, acceptance of role defined career
Dave Roberts could very well have been remembered as the man who changed organizations nearly as many times (11) as the number of years he played in the Majors (13). But it was Roberts' professionalism and his willingness to accept a role out of the limelight that those who knew him prefer to remember.
Roberts, a left-handed pitcher during his career, died of lung cancer Friday at the age of 64.
"There are so many players that play this game and aren't in the spotlight, but it's hard to find those like Dave who are OK with not being the star," said former Pirates pitcher Kent Tekulve, a teammate on the Pirates' 1979 World Series champion club, after learning of Roberts' passing. "He was the kind of player that the star players appreciated more than anything else.
"He took all those ugly innings. He took all those situations where we didn't have to work because he would. He was extremely durable. He didn't care that he was the 10th guy on the staff. He didn't care that he was not getting the credit. He just wanted to win."
And so defines Roberts' legacy.
He broke into the Majors in 1969 and played for eight clubs before retiring in '81. Even before making his Major League debut with the Padres, Roberts -- a native of Gallipolis, Ohio -- had already been a part of three other organizations.
All that shuffling early on prepared Roberts for what would be a transient career that started in San Diego and ended in New York. He played with the Padres for three seasons before being traded to the Astros, with whom Roberts spent four years. That would be his longest tenure with any club.
The left-hander later pitched with the Tigers, Cubs, Giants, Pirates, Mariners and Mets.
Roberts seemed to maintain good humor about his ever-changing location, though.
"The way I look at it," Roberts was once reported as saying, "either I'm a bum or everyone wants me."
Those who played with Roberts seem to believe it was the latter.
Roberts' most successful years came with the Astros, though it was with the Pirates in 1979 that Roberts won his only World Series ring. In '73, Roberts notched a career-best 17 wins and a 2.85 ERA over 39 games (36 starts) for Houston. That year, Roberts also pitched six shutouts and a total of 12 complete games.
"Dave was the consummate pro," said Astros president of baseball operations Tal Smith, who was the team's general manager during Roberts' time in Houston. "He averaged 35 starts and 12 wins a year for the club during his four years as an Astro, but he'll really be remembered and missed for the leadership he provided and for being such a good guy."
In 1971, while still with the Padres, Roberts finished second in the National League in ERA with a 2.10 mark.
During the Pirates' postseason run in 1979, Roberts made just one relief appearance and was the only member of the Bucs' pitching staff not to pitch in the World Series. However, as Tekulve tells it, Roberts played quite the integral role in the club's seven-game Series win over the Orioles.
Down 1-0 in the Series, Tekulve and Roberts went to a Baltimore-area German restaurant for lunch prior to Game 2. Tekulve ordered his favorite dessert -- a strawberry shortcake -- and pitched a scoreless ninth inning that night to help the Pirates secure the win.
So when the Pirates found themselves down 3-2 in the Series, Roberts knew exactly what was needed to turn around the team's fortunes.
"Dave made the comment that all we have to do is get you back to Baltimore for that strawberry shortcake," Tekulve recalled. "He insisted that we eat there before the next two games, and it worked.
"That was Dave Roberts. He didn't care what it took, as long as we won."
Roberts had joined the Pirates in June of 1979, and he went 5-2 with a 3.21 ERA as primarily a reliever. He did have one shining moment that year, however, and that came in a 19-inning game on Aug. 25.
Fitting for the role that he held with the club, Roberts entered the game in the 16th inning and knew that he would be in for the duration. However, in his first inning of work, Roberts quickly found himself in a bases-loaded jam.
With two outs, he turned toward second, where San Diego's Dave Winfield stood. Winfield put his hands around his throat, imitating a choking sign, and looked back at Roberts. Roberts responded with an inning-ending strikeout and four scoreless innings to help the Pirates win.
"He's probably the last guy on the team, because of the role that he fills, that you would expect to get out of the situation, and he does," Tekulve said. "That was really a special moment for all of us because it was a chance for the guy who never got to shine."
Roberts left the Pirates for Seattle in 1980 and went just 2-7 with a 5.14 ERA in his last two seasons in the big leagues.
Roberts' death came after a struggle with lung cancer that had developed from exposure to asbestos -- a mineral with toxic fibers -- earlier in his life, according to a report by the Associated Press. He had worked as a boilermaker years ago, which likely exposed him to the toxic substance.
According to a spokesperson for the Pirates, no funeral arrangements for Roberts have yet been announced.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.