Leon Roberts, the new hitting coach for the Oklahoma City RedHawks, spent parts of 11 major league seasons as a player with six teams (Detroit, Houston, Seattle, Texas, Toronto and Kansas City).
Before joining the RedHawks this year, he spent 13 seasons in the Atlanta Braves organization, including four as the minor league hitting instructor.
Roberts, 61, also has served as a hitting coach in the Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Rays organizations and managed in the minor leagues for farm clubs of Atlanta and Detroit.
You are a Michigan man?
I went to the University of Michigan from '69 to '72. I went there on a football scholarship to play football and baseball. I was an end. They never passed. I ended up playing basketball and baseball for three years.
You played for Bo Schembechler?
I was recruited by Bo like crazy but I didn't physically play for him. He was a pretty interesting guy. He used to scare me to death. He goes, “I am going to make you an all-Big Ten tight end” and they didn't pass much. He was three yards and a cloud of dust. They never passed, so that's why I went out for basketball. I was going to play baseball anyway.
What sport did you enjoy the most?
Baseball. I loved football. I tried out for the Houston Oilers in '77 as an end/punter and had their team made. There was really nobody in the way of two-sport stars back then. Dave DeBusschere did it a little bit. Pitched for the White Sox and played for the Pistons. Gene Conley pitched with the Red Sox and played basketball for the Celtics. I was going to play (football) only on Sundays and then when the baseball season was over play full time. We had it all set up and then the (Astros') front office found out about it and upped my salary to buy me out of it.
Do you regret not trying to play both sports professionally?
No, not really. I see what Bo Jackson went through and his hip blown out. I watched Deion Sanders do it. Brian Jordan did it. But it's almost like you need to put your eggs in one basket.
What is your fondest memory of being in the major leagues?
It was probably the first day I got there and walking into Tigers Stadium. I grew up in Michigan, watched the Tiger teams and all the players and went to the University of Michigan.
How did you get to be a hitting coach?
I always had a passion for hitting and studied it like crazy from when I played. I thought I had some ideas to help guys. I have been like a hitting coordinator for 18 years.
Do you agree with Ted Williams that the hardest thing to do in sport is to hit a baseball?
I would probably say that is pretty accurate. I talked to him six or seven times for hours. It was pretty amazing to be around him. You would give him a concept or ask him a question and he would interrupt you halfway through and say, “Here's what you do” or “Here's what you should be thinking.” There wasn't anything (about hitting) that ever caught him by surprise.
Who was the better hitter? Williams or Joe DiMaggio?
My first manager was Ralph Houk and in rain delays, I would get him talking about Joe DiMaggio. He said (DiMaggio) was the best breaking ball hitter he had ever seen. The best way to get good hitters out is throwing him a bunch of curves. He said (DiMaggio) could wear a curve ball out. He would just rake Bob Feller.
So you would look forward to rain delays just to hear the stories?
Isn't that the truth. Plus he managed Mickey Mantle, so he had Mickey Mantle stories, which was one of my other heroes.
What is your best advice for young players?
Play hard. Play smart. Play with confidence and have fun.
When you played for the Astros (1976-77), were you embarrassed to wear the old Houston uniforms with the rainbow colors?
At the start we looked like a bunch of clowns. But after about two or three months it wasn't that big of a deal. They were pretty bright.
Where were your favorite places to play?
Fenway has a lot of nostalgia. Old Yankee Stadium has a lot of nostalgia, the old St. Louis park. Probably those three. In St. Louis you could hardly get a ticket and you would go in there and it's all bright red.
And your least favorite places to play?
There were a lot of places in the minors. I was in the American Association, which got swallowed up by the PCL (Pacific Coast League). Evansville, this old Oklahoma (City) ballpark, Wichita, places where there were two showers and one worked. You had to hang your stuff on nails. No hot water. The dirt was real hard and you had strawberries all the time. Bad lights so you couldn't see the spin on a breaking ball.
So the guys playing in the minors today have it a lot better than when you played?
I can remember going into places where you had to fight a tarantula for some cold water. You were riding buses for 14 hours with no air conditioning.
Is hunting is your favorite pastime away from baseball?
Probably. I have hunted all the Western states for big game except Utah and Nevada. Elk, deer, bear, sheep, antelope, moose. My passion now is quail hunting though. You can get a lot more shots off.
RedHawks back home
The Oklahoma City RedHawks return home from their first road trip of the season Saturday and open an eight game homestand beginning at 7:05 p.m. at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.
The RedHawks open a four-game set with the Albuquerque Isotopes on Saturday then begin a four-game series with the Round Rock Express on Thursday.