CINCINNATI — Bip Roberts hears the whispers in the clubhouse. He sees the glances. He knows the Padres are concerned.
It wasn't supposed to be happening like this. He worked out harder during the winter than he ever has in his life, maybe harder than anyone in baseball, craving to be the best leadoff hitter in the National League. He was the best in the league the second half of 1989, and he wanted to prove it was no fluke.
But one week into the season, Roberts, the Padres' third baseman, is struggling. He's batting just .167 with an on-base percentage of .231. Instead of being the slashing-type hitter of a year ago, he's hitting routine pop-ups.
"He just doesn't seem like the same guy right now," said Padre Manager Jack McKeon, whose club opens a two-game series against the Cincinnati Reds beginning at 11:05 a.m.(PDT) today. "He's not doing the things that made him successful last year. I don't like what I'm seeing.
"It's just not the same Bip we know."
If only McKeon knew. If only anyone knew. Then they would understand.
Maybe it would be best if Roberts walked into McKeon's office, and told him what's going on in his life. Perhaps it would help him if he sat in the middle of the clubhouse, and blurted out his deep, dark, secret, the one which leaves tears streaming down his eyes whenever he's alone.
But how can he say anything, when he has such a damn hard time accepting it himself?
"You're so embarrassed by it," Roberts said Monday. "You think, 'How did it ever happen? How could I have prevented it?' You can't even admit it to yourself, but man, you never escape reality.
"This isn't a movie. This isn't make-believe stuff. This is real life."
How do you tell someone that your own father, the man you've emulated throughout life, and love more than anybody in this whole world, is a drug addict?
How do you tell someone that you lay awake at nights worrying about your father, hurting so bad at times that your rib cage muscles ache because of incessant crying?
How do you tell someone that your father called collect virtually every week asking for handouts, knowing that if you turned him down, your next call might be from the coroner's office?
How do you tell someone that the last time you visited your father a month ago, you checked him into a rehabilitation clinic in San Francisco, praying with all your might that this is the answer?
"I know he's a drug addict, I know he's done a lot of things wrong in his life," Roberts said, his eyes misting. "He tore our family apart. Drugs screw up your life so bad, not only your life, but all of those around you.
"My family's been destroyed because of my dad. It just tears out our insides thinking about it. Damn, he's only 48. He's still got a lot of life to live, and instead he's done this.
"Friends of mine have told me to forget it. There's nothing I can do. My family didn't even want me to know about it, because they know how sensitive I am. They didn't want me to ruin everything I've worked for by worrying about him.
"But he's my dad, man. He's my own dad. All I've ever wanted to do in life was make him proud of me, that's all.
"Man, I can't tell you what I'm going through."
Roberts sniffed, wiped his eyes, and looked away.
Roberts and his wife were home one afternoon a few days before spring training when the phone rang. It was the operator, asking the usual request: "Will you accept a collect call from Leon Roberts?"
Roberts was used to these calls. His father began calling him regularly since last July, asking for handouts. Roberts gave him $100 on some occasions, $200 on others. Once when he called, he had news. He informed Roberts that he now had a baby sister. Roberts cried over the phone, knowing that whomever this woman was, it certainly wasn't his mother.
Who knows where all the money was going, anyway? Roberts hoped and prayed it was for food and lodging, but realistically, most probably it was being used to buy crack cocaine. In the section of Oakland where his dad was staying, crack was offered more frequently on the streets than shoe shines in Tijuana. Besides, crack is even cheaper than a shoe shine, just five bucks for a quick high.
Only this telephone call was different than all of the others. This time, his father's speech was badly slurred, the voice barely audible. It didn't matter that Roberts had difficulty making out the words, the implication was clear.
"He was begging for help, and if he didn't get some help real fast, he was going to harm himself, maybe kill himself, I don't know," Roberts said. "He didn't have any place to go. He didn't have anybody to turn to. He was crying, my own father was crying.
"I knew deep down if I didn't do something drastic now, it'd just be a matter of time before I'd get that phone call from the coroner's office or police, saying, 'We found your father. Sorry, he's dead.' "