Playing With The Enemy

Nearly 15 years after Baltimore drafted him, Brian Roberts tries on a strange new uniform. (Getty Images)

Nearly 15 years after Baltimore drafted him, Brian Roberts tries on a strange new uniform. (Getty Images)

TAMPA, FLA. — Prior to Tuesday’s spring training game between the Yankees and Orioles, I pulled up the Baltimore lineup on my phone and showed it to New York second baseman Brian Roberts, who had asked to see if any of his friends had made the trip from Sarasota. There was hardly a familiar name in the group, none of Roberts’ longtime teammates in Baltimore during his 13 years as an Oriole. It was not surprising. Spring training road teams rarely bring out their best lineups.

But Roberts acknowledged that it would be a bit bizarre to stare across the dugout to see guys dressed in an Oriole uniform and know that he would not be seated among them. As if wearing something other than black and orange wasn’t odd enough, most bizarre would be that Roberts would be wearing the Yankee uniform. During his time in Baltimore, no team represented the Orioles’, and Roberts’, frustrations more than the Yankees — except perhaps the Boston Red Sox — and yet here was Roberts now wearing the enemy uniform.

From 2004 through 2007, I was the Orioles beat writer for the Washington Post, and it certainly felt like there was an inferiority complex among Baltimore players when it came to being compared to the Yankees. New York fans would invade Camden Yards and the Orioles would, for all practical purposes, be pushed to being the de facto visiting team. Players often said publicly it didn’t bother them, but they voiced their complaints privately.

“It’s hard to think you’re playing a road game at home, especially against a team you need to beat and compete against in order to get where you want to get to,” Roberts said on Tuesday. “It was hard. It was frustrating.”

And Baltimore’s frustrations with the Yankees weren’t just limited to home games.

Former Baltimore closer Chris Ray once joked with me when I asked him how difficult it was to pitch the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium: “It’s the toughest four outs in baseball.” Ray had referenced the belief that in crunch time, especially during the ninth inning, the Yankees would get all the breaks, all the calls from the umpires. The Yankees would always be destined to win, while the Orioles would always be made to suffer. And that’s how most players saw it.

No player encapsulated Baltimore’s miserable 14-year post season drought from 1998-2011 more than Roberts, who endured all but three of those years. When Baltimore finally reached the postseason in 2012, Roberts was unable to play because of injury. Roberts had 5,905 plate appearances in 1,327 games with the Orioles, none of them in the playoffs.

In the offseason, Roberts, who became a free agent after 2013, said he only had one conversation with the Orioles about returning to Baltimore. The conversation had been positive, so Roberts held some hope he would be back. But when he didn’t hear from the Orioles again, it was all he needed to realize that it was time to move on. Nobody quite knew that he would end up on the roster of one of Baltimore’s biggest rivals.

I walked into the Yankees spring training clubhouse on Monday and saw Roberts in pinstripes and the image just didn’t fit. I told Roberts how bizarre it was to see him in that uniform.

“It’s weird for me too,” he admitted.

Roberts was surrounded by reporters prior to Tuesday’s game because he was about to face his old team. It seemed a perfect time to catch up on his spring. Roberts, who missed most of least season and has sparingly played in the last four seasons because of injuries, spoke of the massive differences this spring training has been from previous ones.

“It is just different to be the guy in the back that no one knows about or cares about,” said Roberts. “I think that does help guys at times when you are trying to get back on your feet.”

With the Orioles, Roberts was often the team spokesman. At times, that role became tiresome, especially when Baltimore was losing, and they lost a lot. Also, Baltimore’s fortunes on the field were often directly determined by Roberts’ performance. Roberts won’t have that same role with the Yankees.

“I don’t think anybody thinks I have to do a ton,” Roberts said. “I just want to win some games and have fun playing baseball.”

That often wasn’t the case in Baltimore, where the team didn’t do too much winning and the environment wasn’t all that fun.

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