Leon Roberts is a baseball lifer who could reminisce for days without repeating the same story.
In his 44th year in professional baseball, his third season as the Oklahoma City RedHawks hitting coach, Roberts tries to pass along lessons he’s learned from Hall of Famers to prospects in the Houston Astros organization.
“Leon definitely is a storyteller, but what’s amazing is he remembers everything,” said RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco. “He remembers every person he’s ever met. He also remembers all those things involved in hitting, which is why he’s one of the best hitting coaches I’ve ever been around.”
A Michigan native who was a three-sport star for the Wolverines in the early 1970s, Roberts has worked with All-Stars such as the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto, current Astros rookies George Springer and Jon Singleton and a long list of Atlanta Braves, including Andruw Jones.
Film study is part of the modern-day pre-game preparation, but Roberts focuses more on what a hitter is thinking in the batter’s box.
“Leon is a great influence on these young kids,” DeFrancesco said. “He doesn’t mess much with mechanics. He’ll tweak some things, but he’s more into the mental part of the game like what pitches to look for in certain situations. Young players respond very well to him.”
Every time another one of Roberts’ pupils reaches the majors it’s more ammunition he can use to convince the next wave of young hitters that if they approach each at-bat with a purpose they can be successful.
“He worked with Votto and (Jay) Bruce, some great young hitters these players can relate to,” DeFrancesco said. “Now if he starts talking about Willie McCovey or other players from back in the ’60s, I’m not sure these players have any idea who he’s talking about.”
Roberts said each hitter is different in addition to how young a player is when he’s their coach.
“Sometimes you play a small role because they’re already in a good spot, but sometimes you play a large role,” Roberts said. “Most players, especially the high draft picks, are very talented but you’re still laying the groundwork.
“I found out Joey Votto was a big Ted Williams enthusiast. When I heard that I started teaching him some of Ted Williams’ concepts. I’d tell him, ‘Here’s what you’re doing, here’s what Ted did.’ It helped him see what changes he needed to make.”
Among his three decades in coaching, Roberts managed for 11 seasons in the Atlanta and Detroit organizations.
Roberts spent 13 seasons in the Braves organization as a manager and hitting instructor. He also spent six season as the Cincinnati Reds’ hitting coordinator and two seasons as Tampa Bay’s Major League hitting coach.
“The way he teaches hitting, he makes it really simple,” said RedHawks right fielder Domingo Santana, one of the Astros’ top prospects. “Some hitting coaches get too mechanical. The way he teaches you, it helps you learn things quickly.”
‘EYE’ ON THE PRIZE
There’s a subplot to Roberts’ story that raises the question of what kind of career the Vicksburg, Mich., native might have had if he had normal eyesight.
Drafted in the 10th round out of the University of Michigan, Roberts hit .267 and belted 78 home runs during 11 major league seasons with the Tigers, Astros, Mariners, Rangers, Royals and Blue Jays.
His best season in the majors was 1978. Getting every-day at bats with the Mariners, Roberts hit .301 to finish sixth in the AL batting race.
“Not bad for a guy who had only one eye,” said Roberts, who pierced his right eye when he was age 5 while cutting some string with a knife.
Throughout his career, to pass routine eye tests, Roberts would sneak to the front of the room, nonchalantly memorize the eye chart and then return to the back of the line, knowing the nurse would ask him to read a specific line.
“With my one good eye I had a depth perception problem,” Roberts said. “In 1984, we did a 10-station eye test in New York. After conferring, the doctors were trying to kick me out. I told them, ‘I’m an outfielder.’ They said, ‘No way. You can’t see a lick.’ That was the last year of my career.
“I played all those years in the outfield with bad eyesight. Who knows how good I might have been with two good eyes? I had a good swing, but I never saw the spin of the ball or any of those type of things. I didn’t know any better. That was just the eyesight I had always had.”
What would have happened if Roberts’ eyesight prevented him from playing pro baseball? He most likely would have played in the NFL.
“I made the Houston Oilers roster in 1976,” Roberts said. “Dan Pastorini, their quarterback, didn’t want to punt anymore. After a tryout as the punter and a backup end, I made the team but the Astros gave me a big enough raise I focused only on baseball.”
In addition to watching players like Votto and Springer evolve into All-Star caliber players, it’s also gratifying to help unheralded players such as San Diego’s Chris Denorfia, and 18th-round pick, reach their potential.
“His first year, he hits .340 in rookie ball but is still an afterthought,” Roberts said. “I taught him how to hit even better and hit with power, and he’s been in the big leagues a lot of years. I’ve had a lot of players like that, players like Martin Prado, who just signed a $40 million contract.”
Roberts, 63, is uncertain how much longer he’ll coach but said it’s been a fun ride.
“It all started when I had stories told to me,” Roberts said. “In the old days, we’d sit around, drink a beer and talk baseball. I’m sure some stories along the way were a little fabricated, but I’ve heard a lot of interesting stories.
“The reason I pass these stories along to these guys is there’s always a lesson in those stories, things like how to hit for average, going oppo (opposite field), how to hit a certain style pitcher or how to get out of a slump. If you’re willing to listen to those stories they can be invaluable.”