By JORDAN IKEDA, Rafu Columnist
The franchise that broke baseball’s color barrier in 1949 has hired its first minority manager in team history.
After a four-week vetting of a half dozen or so potential candidates, the Los Angeles Dodgers have decided upon a manager. And for the first time in a long, long while, the choice appears to be a good one.
On Monday, former Dodgers outfielder Dave Roberts signed a three-year contract with a team option for a fourth year to replace Don Mattingly.
Roberts, 43, played for the team from 2002 to 2004. He also played for the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres, and San Francisco Giants over his 10- year career in which he hit .266 with 243 steals and played in the postseason four times, including winning a World Series ring in 2004.
“It’s hard for me to put into words what it means to be named manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers,” Roberts said in a statement. “This is truly the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Outside of one game as interim skipper for the Padres last season, Roberts – nicknamed “Doc,”’ due to his baseball acumen – has never managed anywhere, though he was most recently the bench coach for Bud Black (who also interviewed for the Dodgers opening) with San Diego. After outpacing a field that included Black, Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach, third base coach Ron Roenicke, 1988 World Series hero Kirk Gibson, former Angels first baseman Darin Erstad, and Chicago Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez, the final decision came down to Roberts and Dodgers Director of Player Development Gabe Kapler. Kapler was seen by some as the leading candidate due to his ties with Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman from their Tampa Bay Rays days.
It also probably didn’t hurt Roberts’ case that he’ll continue a 70-year tradition of breaking racial barriers the Dodgers began with Jackie Robinson, that continued with Fernando Valenzuela and Hideo Nomo, and has recently extended to players like Yasiel Puig.
Born in Okinawa, Roberts is half African American and half Japanese. The son of Eiko and Waymon Roberts will be the first minority manager in Dodgers history and one of only three minority managers in the MLB next season.
“We could not have been more impressed with him through this process,” Friedman said of Roberts in a statement issued by the Dodgers. “His energy is infectious and he has the rare ability to make a genuine connection with every person he comes across.”
The last manager hired by Friedman was Joe Maddon, a decade ago for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Maddon was previously Mike Scioscia’s bench coach in Anaheim and under his leadership—a mix of energy, confidence, old school tactics and sabermetrics—the Rays made their first and only World Series appearance.
Which means Friedman’s words should not be taken lightly. He went on to express his appreciation for Roberts’ skills as a “baseball man” and “people person” and his confidence that he’ll be able to lead the Boys in Blue in pursuit of their ultimate goal—a world championship.
The welcome mat has already been rolled out by at least one L.A. fan of note. Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a statement saying he is “thrilled” with Roberts’ selection.
“Dave brings passion and a championship pedigree to an organization that is built to contend for the World Series each year,” Garcetti wrote. “With Dave in the dugout, the team not only secures a top-notch baseball mind, but it also makes history, bringing the first person of color to this important post.”
Make no mistake, Roberts will need every ounce of people and baseball skills he can muster to see that pursuit come to its fairy-tale ending. First of all, he is the youngest Dodgers manager since a 42-year-old Walt Alston took over the club in 1954. But while youth is often a sign of inexperience, it also brings with it a sense of never-ending optimism. In fact, Roberts fits comfortably in the managerial youth movement sweeping the MLB.
AJ Hinch of the wild-card Houston Astros is 41. Mike Matheny of the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals and Craig Counsell of the Milwaukee Brewers are both 45. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is 46. White Sox Manager Robin Ventura is 48. And Jeff Bannister of the AL West-winning Texas Rangers is 50. Of note is that all of them were former players— though much like Roberts, none were huge stars.
Besides, a young Alston did okay for himself. He had four World Series rings before his 53rd birthday. Not a bad precedent for Roberts to follow. In fact, Alston and his successor, Tommy Lasorda, formed a 42-year run of stability at the Dodgers’ managerial position that has since seen eight different men take the position over the past 17 years. Perhaps, just perhaps, Roberts can begin a similar run.
Despite the disappointing outcomes of the Mattingly era, Roberts enters to relative front-office stability. The franchise has seemingly unlimited financial backing, but has taken the mentality of building up its farm system. And now the regime change has fully shifted onto the shoulders of Friedman, who will undoubtedly work together with Roberts on matters of strategy and analytics (like he did with Maddon), which was something Mattingly was uncomfortable with.
Speaking of regime changes, after Lasorda’s heir apparent, Bill Russell, put in a couple of runner-up finishes, he was axed by the Murdoch regime.
Ahhh…the News Corp. era. Cleaned house of Russell, General Manager Fred Claire, superstar catcher Mike Piazza, and subsequently ushered in the resignation of Scioscia and his crew, who ended up winning a World Series ring with the Angels a few years later. Scioscia should’ve been the guy at the helm of Dodgers baseball, but now Roberts gets his chance so dems da berries.
Glenn Hoffman never got a real shot. Davey Johnson didn’t either. Jim Tracy never really had the personnel or personal talent to be the guy. (Other than Tracy’s first partial season as the skipper of the Rockies that earned him NL Manager of the Year…gasp, his stops in Pittsburgh and Colorado mostly proved he’s not manager material.) Grady Little was a disheveled disaster. Joe Torre was too branded in pinstripes for L.A. and didn’t have the team-wide talent as his Boston Massacre of an owner continued to trim payroll and destroy the team.
Donnie Baseball averaged 88 wins per seasons over his five years and led the Blue to the past three NL West titles, but he, like Torre, was simply too ingrained in Yankee lore to truly be accepted out in the Wild West. Plus, well, let’s just say he just wasn’t a great tactician. And he and Friedman didn’t necessarily see eye to eye on advanced metrics.
Unlike Tracy, Little, Torre and Mattingly, Roberts has strong ties to Southern California. While born in Japan, he was raised in San Diego and played baseball at UCLA. He’s intimately familiar with the Giants and Padres, and learned under Black, who learned under Scioscia. He’s also young enough to both understand and appreciate the way sabermetrics now influences the game, but possesses the fundamental playing style of pure old-school small ball.
In his day, he would bunt for a single, swipe second, and then move over to third on a ground ball, before taking home on a sac fly.
And now he takes the helm of a team filled with aging vets past their primes, a bunch of green young ’uns who don’t yet know how to grind, and a couple of super-duper talents that have not fully learned how to utilize their gifts to greatest effect. The team is also looking to decrease what was a record $300 million payroll for a Swiss-cheese roster.
The bullpen was an unreliable disaster last season. Clayton Kershaw will be back, but Zack Greinke may not. Hyun-Jin Ryu should be fully recovered from a torn labrum, but he’s not a proven second banana. After that, the rotation is full of question marks.
Veteran infielders Howie Kendrick and Jimmy Rollins will be gone with rookie Corey Seager taking over for the latter. The outfield is crowded with overpaid and in some cases disgruntled players. Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford are both 34 and make far more than they are probably worth. Puig believes he’s worth far more than anyone else. Scott Van Slyke’s dad just called out Kershaw. Enrique Hernandez can’t really hit righties. And 23-year-old Joc Pederson hit .178 with 6 homers after being elected to the All-Star game.
Furthermore, there isn’t a bona fide star hitter on the roster. Despite a career .299 average and .850 OPS in the postseason, Adrian Gonzalez simply isn’t feared. And we all know Kershaw’s struggles in the postseason.
So, yeah, Roberts has got his work cut out for him. Especially when success will be counted in World Series rings.
With all that acknowledged, Roberts has a sustained track record of beating the odds and making things work.
He overcame his under-the-radar draft status to become the starting center fielder for the Dodgers in the early 2000s. He worked with legend Maury Wills to become one of the best base stealers in the league. And he’s most well known (especially in Beantown) for “The Steal” in the 2004 ALCS that propelled the BoSox to the franchise’s first World Series championship in 86 years.
But that wasn’t his most difficult accomplishment. In his post-playing career, he survived a 2010 diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I feel that I have now come full circle in my career,” Roberts said in the statement. “And there is plenty of unfinished business left in L.A.”