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Men of Steal

New Dodger sparkplug Roberts learns tricks of the leadoff trade from one of the best in Wills

September 22, 2002|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is the middle of a game, but the old hustler has always known when to make his move, and it is now.

He walks through the stands, down a stairwell, through the Dodger clubhouse, up a tunnel, toward their dugout.

Just before he reaches the bench and bat rack and glare of the cameras, he stops.

Deep enough to hide. Close enough to whisper.

"Can you get him for me?" he asks a batboy.

The batboy knows who he means. Everybody knows why he is here.

The old hustler is looking for the face he sees in the mirror each morning, the voice he hears on his cell phone at night.

The old hustler is looking for the new kid.

There is a clatter of cleats, a parting of players, a dusty Dodger uniform entering the shadows.

"What's up?" says the new kid.

"You can bunt on these guys," says the old hustler.

"But I tried, and I can't."

"Try it again, but try it this way ..."

Moments later, the old hustler disappears into the darkness while the new kid steps into the sunshine, a big fastball, a pretty bunt attempt, a slide into first base, a standing ovation.

After a baseball lifetime of searching for a home, new kid Dave Roberts has finally found one.

Come to think of it, so has old hustler Maury Wills.

*

They meet a couple of times a week, on the Dodger Stadium field, the first ones.

While teammates are dressing or eating, Maury Wills and Dave Roberts are working.

"Stay in there!" Wills says.

"Like this?" Roberts says.

A batting practice pitcher is throwing fastballs. Roberts is bunting them.

Left, right, straight, third base, first base, again, again.

The only spectators are birds that have settled curiously upon the outfield grass. The only sounds are the plunk of a bat, the music of a lesson.

"Come out of the box on that," Wills says.

"Like this?" Roberts says.

It is a dance they have been doing for nine months now, alone, at odd hours, the dance of the desperate.

Roberts had spent most of the previous eight seasons in a minor league uniform, from Akron to Visalia, from unhappy to unwanted.

He joined the Dodgers last winter from Cleveland in a trade that cost the team only two non-prospects. He was looking only to belong.

Maury Wills, arguably the most exciting player in Los Angeles history, had spent much of the last 30 years bouncing around in the same manner, looking for the same place.

He tried drugs, alcohol, contemplated suicide, failed as a major league manager, struggled as an instructor. Two years ago, he rejoined the Dodgers for one last try.

Says Roberts: "I wanted somebody who would give me a chance."

Says Wills: "I wanted somebody who would listen."

The dance started in January, at the winter workouts at Dodger Stadium. Even though he was new to the team, Roberts was easy to spot.

On most days, he was the only major leaguer who showed up.

Three times a week, he would make the two-hour drive from his home in north San Diego County.

Says Roberts: "I'm the kind of person who can't take anything for granted."

Says Wills: "When I saw he was the only major leaguer around, I knew he wanted to do something."

Roberts was 29, Wills was 69, but they were striking in their similarities, even down to their stature and smiles.

As Roberts had struggled in the minor leagues, so had Wills, for nearly nine years before getting his chance.

As Roberts had difficulty convincing people he could win games with his legs, so did Wills, who didn't even bat leadoff until his second year with the Dodgers.

Nobody expected Roberts to be with the team on opening day.

Nobody expected Wills to last parts of 14 seasons, lead the league in steals six times, break Ty Cobb's 47-year-old record for stolen bases in a season, revolutionize baseball's running game.

Roberts had been stuck in Cleveland behind the quirky Kenny Lofton.

Wills had been stuck in Los Angeles trying to teach the quirky Tom Goodwin.

Says Roberts: "Getting a chance to work with Maury was like a dream come true."

Says Wills: "I finally had a protege."

Throughout the winter they worked, and then again in the spring.

Wills would hold a general bunting and baserunning session in the morning, and Roberts would show up before everyone else.

Wills would hold another session after the workouts, and Roberts would stay until everyone left.

Says Roberts: "No offense to anyone else, but Maury was teaching my game, and I had to hear him."

Says Wills: "It was so funny how everyone would leave, then Dave would double back for more."

Roberts slowly worked his way up the depth chart, passing McKay Christensen, Marquis Grissom and, finally, Goodwin.

By opening day, the Dodgers were so impressed that they were willing to release Goodwin even though they owed him $3.75 million.

Goodwin never really listened to Wills. Roberts never listened to anyone else.

"The way he responded to Maury, it was very gratifying," General Manager Dan Evans said.

"From that first winter workout, we knew we had something."

The season started, and the Dodgers learned even more.

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