Brian Roberts #1 (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
3:30pm UPDATE: The lineup for tonight's game has been posted and Brian Roberts is batting first and playing second base. An official roster move has not yet been made.
The play in question is remarkable only for how unremarkable it appears. On the first pitch of the game Brian Roberts hits a rope off Boston pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. It trickles out towards second base, and Roberts doesn't have much time so he quixotically slides into first. His helmet slides down his brow, but it doesn't even look like he bangs his head on anything. It doesn't look like anything at all. The Red Sox training staff checks on the pitcher, making sure he's okay.
Even the color commentator, Mike Flanagan, focuses his commentary on Matsuzaka. You'd never know there was anything wrong. Five pitches later, Roberts does what he does: he steals second. He plays the full nine innings, contributing on the field and at the plate.
And yet...it was already too late. The smallest of things, which turned out to be the most important of things, went by completely unnoticed. Two days later, it was becoming clear that something was off. Manager Buck Showalter held Brian out of the lineup and told the press that Roberts has "had some headaches and has had trouble sleeping the last couple nights." And that was it. He was diagnosed with (at least) his second concussion, and it was incredibly serious, and he's been unable to play major league baseball since mid-May 2011.
It's easy to focus on the impact that had on the Baltimore Orioles, but forget all that. Concussions are downright terrifying ailments. The Baltimore Sun's Jonathon Pitts profiled Roberts' struggles back in November, and the problems he went through in his concussions included an inability to do even simple things like talk on the phone or take his dog for a walk. These are life-altering injuries, and you can't undersell how little the Orioles mean compared to what Roberts' life means.
Now that he's healthy again, now we can worry about the Orioles again. Because Brian Roberts is back.
The best thing you can say about Roberts' absence is that it gave Robert Andino his chance. Andino was a fringe nobody in the classic Baltimore mold of Brandon Fahey and Freddie Bynum, traded from Florida for Hayden Penn and designated for assignment by the O's in the spring of 2010. He passed through waivers because why bother picking up a backup shortstop? Those guys are little pieces, a dime a dozen. Then he was given a shot and he turned out to be something more than that, a good defender with just enough of a bat to not embarrass himself.
The worst thing you can say about Roberts' absence is to point out the horrendous production the Orioles have gotten from their leadoff hitters. In both 2011 and 2012, the Orioles have had the worst on-base percentage in the American League from the number one spot in the lineup. The leadoff spot also has the worst OBP on the Orioles in that time frame. For all the praise Buck Showalter deserves as this team's leader, that speaks very poorly about either his lineup options or his lineup choices.
It is worth mentioning that Roberts is not a guaranteed panacea. He contributed to the poor performance of the leadoff hitters in 2011, on-basing just .273, easily a career low. He is also coming off not only multiple concussions, but also a back injury that sidelined him in early 2010. He is also 34 years old. Your guess is as good as mine as to what's left in his gas tank.
Still, his bad 2011 numbers are extremely un-Roberts like and come with bad performance on balls in play. A return to that form, minus the ball in play struggles (let's not call it "bad luck" because it only may or may not in fact be bad luck) would be a huge upgrade for the Orioles at the top of the lineup. Roberts' return also allows Robert Andino to potentially slide over to third base. A carousel of bad options have given the Orioles the worst third base defense in the American League two years and running, but Andino might be able to shore up that defense.
More than that, though, the return of Brian Roberts puts a tectonic shift on the nature of the team. A small thing, maybe, but an important thing. They were a team that I like that was threatening relevancy. Now they are the Baltimore Orioles again, finally, and they might just be pretty good this year. That makes this a good day, no matter what Roberts does at the plate.
Welcome home, Brian.