Brian Roberts was born with a broken heart. It spurred him to open it to youngsters and their parents in need of encouragement or simply the knowledge that someone cares.
04/06/2011 10:41 AM ET
Roberts' heart in right place
Second baseman had heart surgery as kid, now helps others
By Bruce Lowitt / MLBPLAYERS.com
What he gets back from his visits to the University of Maryland Hospital for Children is, well, heartwarming.
The Orioles' two-time All-Star second baseman was 9 months old when it was discovered he had a hole in his heart. ASD (atrial septal defect) wasn't a total surprise. His mother, Nancy, and one of her brothers also had heart problems as children.
Doctors put off surgery to see if the heart might heal itself. It didn't. By the time Roberts was 5, the hole had grown to the size of a quarter.
"The one thing I remember the most was just being on the hospital bed when they were getting ready to roll me out for the surgery," he said. "I remember holding on to my parents and crying and screaming cause I didn't understand what was happening. And even if you do understand, it's still scary."
His father, Mike, was the baseball coach at the University of North Carolina. The late Ben Wilcox, a heart surgeon and chairman of UNC's athletics committee, performed the operation.
"He said we had the option of a scar in a straight line or shaped like a Y," Mike Roberts said. "We chose the Y so he could wear open-collared shirts. Afterward, Dr. Wilcox said the Y was for Yale, his alma mater."
Brian's parents held him out of school for a year following the surgery. "Obviously, it took me a while for me to get up to speed," he said. "But once they cleared me, I was able to go full speed. I never think about it anymore."
Mike Roberts said his son started playing baseball with one or both of his parents almost from the time he could hold a plastic bat. "He was a backyard kid playing until his tongue was hanging out.
"He learned his basestealing skills in the backyard from playing Pickle," sort of a run-down play, his father added. From 2003, his first full season, through 2009, Brian was among the top eight American League stolen base leaders. In 2007, he led the AL with 50. He missed more than half the 2010 season with abdominal and back injuries.
Even before he was 10, Roberts was hanging around UNC's baseball field, playing with Tar Heels stars -- and future Major League All-Stars Walt Weiss, B.J. Surhoff and others destined for The Show.
Roberts played for the Tar Heels as a freshman and sophomore. When his father was fired after the 1998 season, he transferred to South Carolina. He was an All-America at both schools and was a supplemental first-round draft pick by Baltimore in the 1999 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Roberts said the ASD was the principal reason he started Brian's Baseball Bash in 2006. It's an annual fundraiser for the UM Hospital for Children with food, drink, auctions of baseball memorabilia and the chance to mingle with Roberts, teammates and athletes from other Baltimore-area teams.
In 2010, he and his wife, Diana, founded the One for All Foundation Fund. It, too, benefits the children's hospital, "whether it be new medical equipment or fun and games for the kids," he said.
He and Diana visit the hospital about 15 times a year, bringing donated items to the children, "and we're having an Easter egg party pretty soon," Roberts said. "We just try to do unique things that hopefully they enjoy and can bring a smile to their face in a hard time."
Having spoken to his parents about what they went through during his open-heart surgery, Roberts realizes the seriousness of whatever their particular circumstances are can hit them harder than it does their children.
Not surprisingly, some parents know who he is and get more excited about the visits than the kids do.
"Sometimes I'll wear a jersey so the kids who don't know can kind of get a grasp of what we're all about and why we're there," he said. "Sometimes it doesn't even matter that you play baseball. They just see that somebody cares enough to come by and bring them something.
"Some of those kids are in a situation where they don't have family there or their parents have to work. They don't have somebody so it's nice for them to see someone."