Dave Roberts rounding the bases with the Oklahoma City 89ers
Baseball Beyond MLB

Baseball Beyond MLB: Dave Roberts

Some great players have amazing careers that everyone is well aware of. Then there are players who have long careers that have ups and downs but overall end up being really great. We tend to write a lot about the players with amazing careers. Those with longer careers but lower peaks don’t warrant as much attention. Most of the time that approach makes perfect sense, but then there are players like Dave Roberts who deserve their day in the sun even though they likely fell just short of amazing.

To get it out of the way, we aren’t talking about the present-day Dave Roberts who is the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. We’re talking about the Panamanian Dave Roberts who played the game of professional baseball from 1952 to 1973. For 22 seasons, that we are aware of, Roberts was one of the best players in the game even if he was never a good player in Major League Baseball. In fact, his three-year run in MLB was entirely forgettable. He ended with a .196/.282/.278 slash line, a 61 OPS+ and -0.5 rWAR. That is the definition of forgettable and if that’s all that Roberts career entailed I wouldn’t be writing about him today. 

Roberts’ lack of MLB success didn’t deter him from trying to get back into MLB and eventually continuing to play the game at a very high level in the unaffiliated leagues. Most notably, his 15 season stint in the affiliated minors and seven-year tour in Nippon Professional Baseball. Two seasons, in particular, stand out as to how great Roberts could truly be when he was at the top of his game.

In 1965 Roberts found himself exiled from MLB for the second time in a four-year span. At this point in his career, it would have been easy for Roberts to call it a day and pack it in. Instead of taking that route, Roberts put together possibly the best season of his professional career. He slashed .319/.428/.615 in 608 plate appearances for the Oklahoma City 89ers of the Pacific Coast League. He also contributed 38 home runs, 20 doubles, and six triples as he won the PCL Most Valuable Player award and helped the 89ers to win the PCL title.

Fast forward to 1969 and Roberts is now with the Sankei Atoms of NPB’s Central League. He’d failed in his last attempt at MLB success, but again, instead of giving up, he decided to take his wares to another major league in the JPCL. After a few good seasons, he set the league on fire in 1969. In 486 plate appearances, he slashed .318/.397/.623 with 37 home runs and 18 doubles. He was one of the best players in the NPB altogether, taking home a best nine award for his play in the outfield. But, he played in the era of Sadahoru Oh and that meant lots of, “great season, but not quite an Oh season.”

When his career finished Roberts sported a slash line of .280/.375/.484 in 11,010 plate appearances. He slugged 433 home runs, 449 doubles, and 78 triples. He also had more walks, 1,380, than strikeouts, 1,304. All those numbers point to a great career and it’s important to note that these aren’t all his statistics. We’re missing totals from the playoffs, Serie del Caribe, and a few other leagues. If those were added in there’s a good chance that Roberts would be a member of both the 500 home run and 3,000 hit club.

Above all the rest, Roberts is a justifiable legend in his home country of Panama. Before Mariano Rivera came to dominate the Panamanian landscape, Roberts was the best player to ever come out of the small Central American country. At a time when Panamanians weren’t much a factor on the worldwide baseball stage Roberts most definitely was. He had a long career, he had a great career. He may not have reached the peaks of others, but his career was worthwhile all the same.

Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Daily Oklahoman

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Bill Thompson
Father (human/feline/canine), husband, Paramedic, Socialist, writer Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and Off the Bench Baseball; freelance writer at various online and print publications. Member Internet Baseball Writers Association of America & Society for American Baseball Research.

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