Dave Roberts and Jim Tracy (Photos by Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers)

Dave Roberts and Jim Tracy (Photos by Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers)

By Jon Weisman

It’s easy to see now what the Dodgers have in Dave Roberts, just as it was easy by the end of 2002, when Roberts had a .353 on-base percentage and 45 stolen bases in his debut Dodger season.

At the start of 2002, maybe it wasn’t so easy. Here’s what Bill Plaschke of the Times wrote that March …

The dispatches have arrived from Vero Beach in fits and starts, surrounded by static, as if the strange late-night rantings of a distant radio station.

ZzzzzzzCesar Izturis is starting at shortstop and batting secondzzzz.

ZzzzzzzEric Gagne is the closerzzzzzz.

ZzzzzzDave, Leon, Bip, Robin, Somebody Roberts is the center fielderzzzzz. …

Plaschke’s incredulity didn’t end there.

… Then how about a guy named Roberts getting the majority of at-bats in center field? An exhaustive search has revealed that the guy’s name is Dave Roberts, in town after a career as Kenny Lofton’s backup in Cleveland, only 75 major league games in eight pro seasons.

He is probably only keeping the seat warm for a prospect. We might have had more fun with Bip. …

Dave Roberts with Maury Wills

Dave Roberts with Maury Wills in Vero Beach in 2003.

Keep in mind, that was written after Roberts surprised everyone and won the starting center-field job. Though there was no Duke Snider to beat out, the speedy Roberts lapped the field while running uphill the entire spring, as Mike DiGiovanna of the Times would note.

 … Roberts was probably fourth on the center-field depth chart when camp opened, behind Marquis Grissom and his guaranteed $5-million contract, Tom Goodwin and his $3.25-million contract, and McKay Christensen and his short-but-successful track record of hitting .327 in 28 games for the Dodgers last season.

But the more Manager Jim Tracy saw of Roberts, the more Roberts, 29, seemed the solution to filling a four-year void at the top of the Dodger order.

Roberts hit .368 with a .478 on-base percentage, nine runs, three doubles, five runs batted in, eight walks, four strikeouts and six stolen bases in 18 Grapefruit League games.

He worked counts, bunted for hits and ran the bases aggressively. He got good jumps and ran good routes in the outfield, and although he doesn’t have the world’s best arm, he hit cutoff men and threw to the right bases. …

Dodgers at Red Sox

Roberts on the run as a Dodger in Fenway Park in June 2004, four months before he stole his way into Red Sox fans hearts.

DiGiovanna pointed out that Roberts wasn’t anonymous to Cleveland fans, “who considered Roberts such a mirror image of Lofton that they started calling him ‘Lenny Clofton.'”

But to those in Los Angeles, he had remained largely a mystery until early March, when according to Robert Kuwada of the Register, Roberts started a game against the Cardinals with a walk and steal of second before scoring on an RBI single by Paul Lo Duca.

“Goodwin, the Dodgers primary leadoff hitter a year ago, did that once last season,” Kuwada said.

On the final Friday of the exhibition season, the Dodgers hosted the Indians — the team that sent Roberts to Los Angeles, as Al Balderas of the Register wrote.

“When I got traded they put me in a pretty good situation and I couldn’t be more grateful,” Roberts said. “Now that I have the opportunity over here, I definitely want to take full advantage of it.”

He has. Roberts walked, singled and scored twice in an 8-4 victory over the Indians. He also made a leaping catch against the wall of a ball hit by Indians leadoff hitter Matt Lawton in the first inning.

“He’s been given an opportunity, and he took advantage of the opportunity,” Dodgers manager Jim Tracy said. “He’s a fundamentally sound baseball player, knows how to play the game, knows what his limitations are, knows what the expectation levels are from my vantage point, and I think he’s going to go out there and try to implement that.” …

Manny Mota, Dave Roberts, Tony Gwynn and Cesar Izturis

Manny Mota, Dave Roberts, Tony Gwynn and Cesar Izturis

On Opening Day of the 2002 season, Roberts got the spotlight in the Times, in a nearly 1,200-word feature by DiGiovanna.

“And now, the starting lineup for your Los Angeles Dodgers — leading off, and playing center field, No. 30, Dave Roberts … ”

When he hears those words from the Dodger Stadium public address announcer before today’s season opener against the San Francisco Giants, all those summers in Visalia, Jacksonville, Akron and Buffalo, all those years of trying to emerge from the shadow of six-time all-star Kenny Lofton, will melt away.

Dave Roberts has finally made it.

In his ninth year of professional baseball, after 798 minor league games and 3,079 minor league at-bats and a batch of late- March disappointments, the former UCLA standout will make his first big league opening-day start today.

It won’t be Roberts‘ major league debut — the 5-foot-10, 180-pound speedster played in 75 games for the Cleveland Indians in the last three seasons — but this is the first time he’s broken camp with a big league team and has a starting job to call his own.

“Playing in the big leagues was a dream come true, but to play on opening day in Los Angeles is off the charts,” Roberts said. “This is something I can’t describe. It didn’t even seem like this was possible.” …

Dave Roberts as player with fans

On that day, Roberts came to bat in the bottom of the first inning. He grounded a single to right field, stole second, went to third on an Izturis bunt and scored on a Paul Lo Duca groundout.

In his next at-bat, he lined a double down the right-field line, went to third on a bunt single by Izturis, and scored on a Lo Duca grounder.

He had a .365 on-base percentage in April, then hit .387/.466/.500 in 73 May plate appearances with nine steals in 11 attempts.

A Dodger folk hero was born. The next chapter comes this year. If I were you, I’d expect some happy surprises.