Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

A stolen moment of fame

Some of the most important steps in the Red Sox' march to the world championship were those taken by Dave Roberts in the 90 feet between first and second base in Game 4 of the ALCS - his dash into baseball history

WASHINGTON -- As long as baseball is played in Boston, Dave Roberts will be remembered.

"It has truly impacted my life," he says. "People are often remembered for one thing in their career, whether it's good or bad. Fortunately for me, that stolen base is embedded in people's minds."

On the basis of a three-second dash to second base, Roberts made himself into a Red Sox folk hero. For "that stolen base" is the most celebrated pilfered sack in Red Sox history, perhaps even in the annals of baseball.

What baseball fan doesn't recall the entire scene in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series? The inning- opening base on balls to Kevin Millar. Pinch runner Roberts trotting to the bag. The throws over from Mariano Rivera. The takeoff on the first pitch to Bill Mueller. The head-first slide. The Jorge Posada throw just inches to the shortstop side of the bag. The artful swipe tag by Derek Jeter. And, most important, the "safe" sign executed by umpire Joe West.

Three people were involved in the manufacture of the run that saved the Red Sox' season and set the forces in motion for the greatest postseason comeback march in American sports history. Millar had to draw that walk from Rivera, Roberts had to steal that base. And Mueller had to bring him home with a single to center. But it is Roberts, the journeyman outfielder, whose star shines a bit brighter in the storytelling than the other two. For, in theory, any position player on the roster could have done what Millar and Mueller did. But no one else on the roster could have done what Roberts did, and everyone knows it.

''When I was with the Dodgers," Roberts reflects, ''Maury Wills once told me that there will come a point in my career when everyone in the ballpark will know that I have to steal a base, and I will steal that base. When I got out there, I knew that was what Maury Wills was talking about."

Consider, once again, the situation. Entering the ninth inning of Game 4, the Red Sox were down, three games to none, to the Evil Empire. They were three outs away from a humiliating sweep. It would surely be the longest of winters for the team, the organization, and its followers.

''I was sitting behind the plate with our people," recalls Theo Epstein. ''I was thinking how unfortunate it all was. It just wasn't right. This team had accomplished a lot. I thought we had the best team in baseball. And I was thinking, 'Why us?' "

And then Rivera inexplicably walked Millar on five pitches. The Hall of Fame-bound reliever had not walked a man in postseason play since 2001. A possible breakthrough?

''As soon as Millar dropped his bat on the plate, I think everyone knew what would be coming next," says Epstein. ''We just needed the visualization. And then Roberts came out of the dugout."

That would be 32-year-old Dave Roberts, acquired from the Dodgers to be a backup outfielder about 10 minutes before the July 31 trading deadline. That was the same day Nomar Garciaparra was dealt to the Cubs. To the public, Roberts was strictly fine-print material.

He was a lefthanded hitter of modest accomplishment noted for one thing: his speed. He was available because the Dodgers had made a deal with Arizona for Steve Finley. Trot Nixon was hurt and Epstein was looking for an outfield body.

''Our focus was on someone who could run and play defense," Epstein says. ''We made a list of 10 guys and made calls on all of them. I guess you can say we lucked out when we called LA. But there was no deal if they hadn't gotten Finley."

Roberts had only one problem with coming to the Red Sox. Boston was 3,000 miles away, and Tricia Roberts was eight months pregnant with their second child.

''It was totally out of the blue to me," he explains. ''At 1:05 [PDT] that day, I said to my wife, 'Well, we made it past the deadline.' Then I got the call. Here was Tricia pregnant and we were in first place. I was disappointed. But I knew about Boston. I met the team in Tampa and was made to feel comfortable from the get-go."

'I was ready to go'

It would be wonderful and dramatic to report that Epstein had a vision of The Moment when his acquisition would be put in a position to steal that base Wills was talking about, but that is not the case. No one is that prescient. But the Red Sox certainly knew they had a new, tantalizing asset.

''We immediately recognized that his best asset was base running, and that he could be a valuable pinch runner," says Epstein, ''but that's all."

Roberts chooses to believe that Theo is being modest.

''I think that on July 31 Theo felt he was acquiring a piece of the puzzle to make up a championship team," he declares.

He made one appearance in the Angels series and none at all in Games 1, 2, or 3 against the Yankees. But being a thorough professional, he began to prepare himself midway through Game 4, loosening up in the cramped clubhouse as best he could.

''I was ready to go," he says, ''and Terry [Francona] told me at the top of the ninth that I'd be running for whoever got on. So when Kevin walked, Terry just looked down at me and kind of winked and said, 'You know what to do.' "

There was a moment of confusion, however.

''I got out there, and [first base coach] Lynn Jones said something about a bunt and I said, 'No, no, no, I'm stealing second.' Apparently, he thought [third base coach Dale] Sveum had given the bunt sign, but then things were straightened out and Jones said to me, 'Do what you do.' "

A read on Rivera

Roberts was ready for the biggest moment of his professional life. He had not played in a while, but he was in good general form, having stolen 38 bases in 41 attempts. Oh, and this was the second time he'd be trying to steal a base against Rivera. The first was back on Sept. 17, when, in a similar situation (2-1, Yankees, bottom of the ninth), Rivera had walked Nixon to start the ninth. Roberts came in to run and began educating himself.

''I discovered that his biggest defense mechanism is holding the ball," Roberts explains. ''Hold, hold, hold . . . it's like an eternity."

Roberts took off on an 0-and-2 pitch to Jason Varitek and made it. Two batters later, Orlando Cabrera tied the game with a single.

Now there were even higher stakes. This was the season.

''You know he's going," says Bruce Bochy, his current manager. ''There's no surprise involved. You know he's in there for a reason."

''But there's a lot of pressure on the pitcher, too," points out Ron Darling, the ex-major league pitcher who now does TV color for the Nationals. ''Your attention is divided between the batter and runner, and that's not good. And this wasn't some young kid who can run fast, or some fading old guy. This was a great base stealer."

Roberts was ready. He had memory-bank data on Rivera, plus lots of videotape help provided by video coordinator Billy Broadbent. He was going to steal second base.

''I was scared, excited," he says. ''I can't tell you how many emotions went through me. He threw over once, and that was good because it helped settle me. He threw over again, and he almost picked me off. He threw over again, and now I was completely relaxed.

''I knew that after three throws they weren't going to pitch out. I took my standard 3 1/2-step lead, and when he went to the plate, I took off. I got a great jump. It was close, but, thank God, Joe West called me safe."

He was safe, but Jeter is a master of the swipe tag and has stolen many an out from gullible umpires over the years. It would not have been a shock if West had blown the call.

''Posada made a great throw," says Bochy. ''It was bang-bang. It just goes to show you what a thin line there is between winning and losing. Another few inches, and he's out. And Boston's done."

You know the rest. Mueller singled up the middle to tie the game and Big Papi delivered the game-winning, series-extending homer in the 12th.

''I had a specific role," says Roberts. ''I was happy I could contribute. Schilling, Pedro, Damon, Tek, they all did their things. Billy Mueller had a great at-bat. When I had an opportunity to hold up my end of the bargain, I'm glad I was able to do it."

''What's great about what he did," says Bochy, ''is that you can't be afraid to fail in that situation, and he wasn't."

One more cameo

Almost forgotten is the postscript. Game 5. Eighth inning. 3-2, Yankees, after a leadoff David Ortiz homer. Millar walks. Guess who pinch runs. Tom Gordon is spooked by his presence. He is so obsessed with Roberts that he goes down, 3 and 0, to Nixon, who slaps a single, sending Roberts to third. Varitek brings him home with the tying run on a sacrifice fly and a few hours later Big Papi delivers, and you probably know the rest, except for this:

Dave Roberts never again played for the Red Sox. No Game 6, no Game 7, no World Series. But Dave Roberts had left an indelible mark on the 2004 Red Sox.

You see, Roberts wanted to be a regular, and Theo obliged by sending him to his hometown Padres, and that's where he is now. But everywhere he goes there are always Red Sox fans.

''Red Sox Nation is everywhere," he laughs, ''and my teammates will say, 'Oh, no, do we have to hear about that stolen base again?' And, of course, I never get tired of talking about that stolen base. Not at all. I have a ring. I'm proud of it."

He knows what he did. Dave Roberts could always hit a homer. But Big Papi was never going to steal that base. In Boston, Massachusetts, Dave Roberts is statue material.