LOS ANGELES -- Until now, Dave Roberts has been best known in baseball for a base he stole off Mariano Rivera, the 90-foot ALCS Game 4 dash that snapped the Boston Red Sox out of their funk and sparked the greatest comeback in postseason baseball history 11 years ago.
Now, to Los Angeles Dodgers fans, he’ll be known as the guy who stole a job from Gabe Kapler.
Of course, the word "steal" isn’t meant as an indictment in either of these cases. Roberts was just doing exactly what he had been summoned to do as a pinch runner for Kevin Millar that October. And he was just doing what anyone else would have done in a job interview for a position they really wanted, putting his best foot forward, when he stunned the industry and became the Dodgers' choice as their next manager, a league source confirmed to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick.
From the minute the team held that awkward news conference at Dodger Stadium to repeat about 200 times that Don Mattingly's departure was "mutual and amicable," everyone in baseball seemed to think Kapler would be the guy. He had the longstanding ties to Andrew Friedman. He had the bona fides as an analytics enthusiast. He was already in the organization, so everybody knew him.
But then the Dodgers' owners got involved, sources indicate, and the Kapler parade slowed down. It slowed down long enough for Roberts to come in and give a couple of interviews that apparently turned the tide in his favor. He is, by all accounts, a very charismatic person. He must be. It’s not as if the San Diego Padres have been such a powerhouse over the past few seasons that their bench coach simply had to get a plum job.
When the Padres fired Bud Black last season, they passed Roberts over in favor of Pat Murphy to be the interim manager. They never even interviewed him for a job that eventually went to Andy Green. Then again, Friedman and Padres general manager A.J. Preller aren’t the same guy. In fact, they’re probably not particularly close since the Matt Kemp deal nearly got derailed by leaked information about Kemp’s physical.
Dodger fans, of course, knew Roberts way before his coaching days, even before he stole that base. They knew him as a plucky, 5-foot-10 center fielder and leadoff hitter for the Dodgers from 2002-04 whose ties to the area go back to his college days at UCLA. Roberts was a good player but not a star, and he should be able to relate to just about everyone on his roster. Like Kapler, he was still playing less than 10 years ago.
If Roberts is looking to re-energize the Dodgers’ running game with his signs, as he once did with his feet, he’ll need to have some long talks with Friedman this winter. The Dodgers were 26th in the majors in stolen bases last season, and their roster, at the moment, doesn’t exactly suggest it will be fleet-footed in 2016.
We don’t yet know what Roberts’ philosophies will be, whether he will be a skilled late-game strategic thinker and how he will handle Yasiel Puig or any other challenging personalities on his club. We only know that somebody in a position of authority -- or, maybe everyone in a position of authority -- found Roberts so impressive that they decided to give him one of the most prestigious titles in the game. He is next in a line that includes Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda, but that has become a veritable rotating door compared to when those guys managed.
If things go perfectly, Roberts will be the fiery leader Lasorda was and the intellectual Alston was. If he combines those two personalities, he might just last as Dodgers manager for 20 years, ending this damaging cycle of relentless regime change.
But right now, all we really have to go on is that, when the going gets tough, Roberts gets going. When he does, apparently, there’s no stopping him.