It’s been 10 years, and Derek Jeter’s words still linger. They’ve lingered with Brian Roberts through more than a thousand Major League games. They’ve stuck through injuries and setbacks; through All-Star games and nearly 1,500 career hits.
“I think it was maybe 2004,” Roberts said. “I was on second or something and he just said, ‘You can hit .300 in this league.’ That was kind of (powerful) to hear it from someone like that. It just kind of opens your eyes. I don’t think it’s just me — I think he does it to everybody — but for some reason, when he tells it to you, you think you’re the most important person in the world.”
On Monday, when Roberts walked into the Yankees spring training clubhouse for the first time, he found his locker next to Jeter’s. They’ve spent 13 years playing against one another in the American League East, they spent a handful of days as teammates in the World Baseball Classic, and now they’ll be together for Jeter’s final season.
Roberts is 36, only three years younger than Jeter, but he broke into the big leagues six years later. At that point, Jeter had four World Series rings. Roberts was just trying to keep his head above water.
“(Jeter)’s meant a ton to me even though I only played about five games with him in the WBC as teammates,” Roberts said. “He’s just always been that guy that encouraged me from the other side. I played against him obviously a ton. One of those guys that early in my career really actually helped me believe that I could play here at this level and play well.”
And Roberts has played well. The year after Jeter’s .300 comment, Roberts hit .314 and made his first All-Star team. He’s twice led the league in doubles. Once led in stolen bases.
But the Yankees were able to sign him for just $2 million because his past four seasons have been a nightmare of concussions, back injuries and a torn hamstring tendon. The man essentially hired to replace Robinson Cano at second base has averaged just 48 games the past four seasons.
“I know he hasn’t played a full season in the last few years, he’s obviously a guy who has some age on him too,” manager Joe Girardi said. “But my plan is to run him out there every day.”
Actually seems like a pretty good fit in this infield full of questions about Jeter’s mobility, Mark Teixeira’s health, and Kelly Johnson’s transition to third base. It’s a new experience for a Yankees team that just five years ago had one of the best infields in baseball history with Teixeira, Cano, Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
Now it’s an infield with something to prove, and Roberts has a spot right next to one of his biggest supporters.
“I had the opportunity to play with Cal (Ripken Jr.) his last year,” Roberts said. “So I’ve seen kind of that whole thing play out before, and that was an amazing experience to walk those last few months with Cal. … There’s such a select few guys that have meant what they’ve meant to the game, and it’s going to be an incredible experience to play with (Jeter) this year.”