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.