Dave Roberts steal

Dave Roberts slides safely, barely, into second base in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the ALCS with Derek Jeter of the Yankees applying the late tag. Roberts later scored on a single to tie the game, and eventually extend the historic series with the Yankees. Brita Meng Outzen/MLB.com

(Editor's note: Two months after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, Eagle-Tribune executive sports editor Bill Burt contacted one of the heros of that title run, Dave Roberts, the manager of the Red Sox next opponent, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Heading into Tuesday night's World Series opener, we go back in time as Roberts gave Bill many details of his stolen base in Game 4, the play that changed the ALCS with the Yankees, and what led up to it. Today is the 15th anniversary of the historical Fenway event.)

Technically speaking, Dave Roberts came to the Red Sox on a trade-deadline deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But it might as well have been a trade with the Angels, because that's just what Roberts was in his three months of service with the Red Sox | an angel.

More than a week ago, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein quietly agreed to deal the 31-year-old outfielder away to the San Diego Padres, the team Roberts grew up watching.

It may not have been a smart move to trade away a valuable utility outfielder/sprinter, but it was the right move.

Roberts did not want to leave. But he had to.

"I'm 31 and I don't have a lot of time left to establish myself as a starter and everyday player," said Roberts, after a workout in Carlsbad, Calif. "The writing was on the wall in Boston. Manny (Ramirez), Johnny (Damon) and Trot (Nixon) are the starters. I want to be a starter, too, for as long as I can. And that opportunity arose in San Diego, which is where I grew up and where I still live. I can't thank Theo Epstein enough. He is one of the classiest people I ever met in baseball."

Roberts played in 45 regular-season games, hitting only .256 as a fill-in while Nixon got healthy, and later as a late-inning pinch-runner.

He did not get one at bat in the playoffs and only saw action in three games. But nobody played a bigger role in getting the Red Sox their first World Series title in 86 years than Roberts did.

His stolen base in the ninth inning of the Game 4, with the Red Sox trailing 4-3 and Mariano Rivera on the mound, set the table for the greatest comeback in the history of professional sports.

Rivera opened the inning by walking Kevin Millar on five pitches, but Millar didn't stay at first base for long.

"Just before the inning started, Terry Francona told me I would be pinch-running for whoever got on base," Roberts said. "So I was stretching in the dugout, getting ready. When Kevin walked, Terry looked down the end of the dugout, where I was, and he winked at me. That was it."

Roberts ran out to first base with what felt like several hundred butterflies floating in his stomach.

"He didn't tell me to steal. He didn't have to," said Roberts, who had stolen 33 times in 34 attempts with the Dodgers before succeeding on 5 of 7 attempts with the Red Sox. "I was going to steal. That's why I was there. That's what I was going to do. Sure, I realized that if I don't make it, we probably don't win that game and the series ends right there."

While stretching at first base, Roberts began getting a little philosophical, recalling a conversation he had with ex-Dodgers coach Maury Wills.

"He told me that some time in your career when you are in a park and everyone knows you are going to be stealing, it will be a big game, and the game or series will hinge on you making it," said Roberts. "I'm stretching there on first base realizing that Maury was right. This was my moment. It was unbelievable, just like he said. I get chills just thinking about it."

'Steal' of the century

This Oct. 17, 2004 file photo shows the Boston Red Sox's Dave Roberts sliding home to score the tying run against New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of game 4 of the ALCS in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola,File)

Let's hit the rewind button for a second.

Roberts had prepared for this moment in other ways. When it became apparent that Nixon would be returning to the lineup in mid-September, Roberts approached Francona.

"I told him I realized the situation and that I would do whatever he wanted me to do," said Roberts. "I pretty much realized that my role would be relegated to pinch-running. That was one of the reasons they got me here, for speed. I just wanted Terry to know I wasn't going to cause any problems."

Roberts said he also began meeting with Red Sox video expert Billy Broadbent and first-base coach Lynn Jones. "I figured I'd be pinch-running late in games, so I got together with Billy and we looked at video of all the relievers I expected to see. I wanted to see their tendencies. And the guy I looked at the most was Mariano Rivera. With Lynn, I worked on my getting a good jump. We did it every day. I wanted to be ready, just in case."

On Sept. 17, Roberts put his newfound knowledge to use at Yankee Stadium.

The Red Sox were losing, 2-1, but Rivera walked Nixon to start the ninth inning. Roberts came in to run for Nixon. He waited until the third pitch (on which Jason Varitek struck out swinging) before taking off and making it to second successfully.

Orlando Cabrera would drive Roberts home, and the Red Sox eventually captured a 3-2 victory. However, the biggest winner was Roberts, who learned a little more about Rivera.

"When fast guys are on base, Rivera likes to hold the ball, to throw the base-runner off," said Roberts. "I really watched him closely for two pitches before going on the third. The experience was invaluable."

Fast-forward back to the ninth inning of Game 4.

Remembering what had happened a month earlier in the Bronx, Rivera threw over to first base three times.

"Normally, guys don't like when a pitcher throws over that many times," said Roberts. "But honestly, it got me in the game. After the second throw over, I felt like I had played nine innings. I was so focused."

After Rivera's third throw, Roberts made a decision to go for the steal.

"I was going no matter what," said Roberts.

With Bill Mueller up, Roberts got a decent jump and took off on the first pitch. Yankees catcher Jorge Posada caught it cleanly and fired a perfect strike to second base. But by about six inches, Roberts beat the ball to second base.

"It was incredible," said Roberts. "Now it was up to Billy, and we know how clutch he is. And Billy hits it right up the middle. When I slid past home plate to score the run, I felt like I was dreaming. It was the greatest feeling I've ever had on the baseball field."

Rivera got out of the inning, but three innings later in the 12th, David Ortiz belted a two-run homer to give the Sox a 6-4 win, averting a Yankees sweep and sparking an epic comeback.

"I was talking to Kevin Millar before the game," said Roberts. "He said, if we win Game 4, this is going seven games. We really felt that based on the fact that Pedro (Martinez) and Curt (Schilling) were the Game 5 and Game 6 starters."

It was dejà vu all over again in Game 5. This time the Sox trailed 4-2 in the eighth inning, with Ortiz hitting a leadoff solo shot to close the gap to 4-3.

Millar, the next batter, walked and Roberts took his place again. This time though, with Tom Gordon pitching, Roberts was more interested in making the Yankees believe he was going.

Nixon ripped a single as Roberts was running. Roberts easily reached third.

The Yankees brought in Rivera. Varitek hit a sacrifice fly to deep center, and Roberts sprinted home with the tying run again. Ortiz eventually finished the job again, with an RBI bloop single in the 14th inning.

It was the last we saw of Roberts, at least on the field.

"My job then became that of a cheerleader," said Roberts. "I was ready to run, but we didn't really have to the rest of the Yankees series or against St. Louis. My work was done. But you know what, we were winning and I couldn't have been happier."

Roberts said the parade a few days later further taught him about playing baseball in Boston.

"It was the most incredible trip I was ever on," said Roberts of the parade through downtown Boston. "People were everywhere, and I mean everywhere. There were signs. There were people crying. It's amazing how much love there was for us. I'll never forget that day."

Neither will he forget his three-plus months as a member of the Red Sox.

"I wish everyone that puts on a uniform in Major League Baseball would play for the Red Sox," said Roberts. "It really is an amazing place. I've never been around so many people that loved the game and their Red Sox."

Roberts said his ties to the city will never wane.

His daughter Emerson was born at Brigham and Women's Hospital during the Yankees series in September. He will bring her back to her first home some day when she is old enough to understand.

"I want to thank everyone, and I mean everyone, for making me feel so wanted and a part of something special," said Roberts. "That is a class organization. They didn't have to send me to San Diego. They had my arbitration rights. But Theo showed me something. I will be forever grateful for him allowing me to play where I grew up."

"Friends of mine are telling me that that stolen base (in Game 4) will be a defining moment in my career. That would be incredible if it is," said Roberts. "I know I wasn't there that long. But it felt like a lot longer. At least, there is a bond there that can never be broken. I will always be a part of history. I can always say I played on that Red Sox team."

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com

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