It's always been hard for Mike Roberts to admit just how good his son Brian Roberts was.
Players who suited up at North Carolina when Roberts was the coach joke about young Brian getting more swings in pre-game batting practice than the Tar Heels did. Coach Roberts wasn't quite sure that 5-foot-9 Brian was good enough out of Chapel Hill (N.C.) High to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Then he wasn't sure if he wanted to coach him. As the old story goes, only when he couldn't convince other schools to take his son did he agree to coach him at UNC.
But he's glad he did; that's how college recruiting turns out sometimes. The highly touted freshmen often turn out, but college baseball also is home to late bloomers and the overlooked players, and out of high school, Brian Roberts was overlooked.
He had a season for the ages 20 years ago to become Baseball America's Freshman of the Year in 1997, when as a shortstop he hit .427 and finished fifth in the country with 47 stolen bases. It's an accomplishment his father can look back at with pride—and Coach Roberts earned a World Series ring in 2016 as a consultant coach with the Cubs who focused on baserunning.
The elder Roberts coached his son for two seasons at North Carolina, but his contract wasn't renewed after the 1998 season. Mike Fox, the current UNC coach, replaced Roberts, while Brian transferred to South Carolina for his junior season.
A supplemental first-round pick by the Orioles in 1999, Roberts went from a player no one wanted out of high school to a two-time all-star second baseman. He reached the big leagues in 2001, led the American League in doubles twice and in steals once, and wound up with more than 1,500 hits to go with 285 stolen bases in 358 attempts. His efficient 79.6 percentage ranks 65th all-time for players with at least 80 attempts.
Despite Brian's career success, his father wonders if the modern game would have a place for his son, now 39, whose last season came in 2014 with the Yankees and who now lives in Sarasota, Fla., with his wife Diana and spends his time primarily raising his two sons Jax and Nash. If Brian does venture into coaching like his old man, which Mike suspects could still happen, he'll be part of a different game.
Mike Roberts has coached Cotuit in the Cape Cod League for 14 seasons and has seen the game evolve considerably over that time.
"Hitting is dramatically different and is taught dramatically differently in pro ball today than it used to be," he said.
"Ted Williams would be rolling over in his grave if he knew what was being taught, and he knew a lot about hitting.
"Players with a flatter swing like Brian's, you can still find them—Bradley Zimmer has a flat swing, and Tommy La Stella—some others. But those are rare. Everyone swings up now, and it seems like everyone wants hitters who throw the head of the bat at the ball and try to lift everything. It's just a very different game."
Roberts is happy to have found the Cubs, who value his information. He'll be in Arizona to help with instructional league in September.
One of these days, he expects his son to do the same as a coach. "But he won't let his old man know about it," Roberts said with a laugh.