Former Tiger Leon Roberts recalls his 11-year career in the big leagues

Leon Roberts played two seasons for the Detroit Tigers as an outfielder in 1974 and 1975.

Leon Roberts played two seasons for the Detroit Tigers in 1974-75.

When he was a senior at Portage Northern High School, Leon Roberts was a coveted athlete pursued by colleges all over the country for any number of sports. The tall teenager ended up staying in-state where he attended the University of Michigan, distinguishing himself as a baseball player. He was drafted by the Detroit Tigers and embarked on a career in baseball that has spanned more than four decades.

Roberts is still in uniform, serving as the hitting coach for the Fresno Grizzlies, the top minor league club for the Houston Astros.

The Michigan native sat down with me for an interview to discuss his 11-year career as a player in the big leagues, as well as his “second career” as a manager and coach.

DAC: How did you become a Tiger?
LR: Bill Lajoie was the area scout or the Michigan scout who later worked himself up to scouting director, farm director, and general manager of the Detroit Tigers, but he had followed me for a couple of years and ended up drafting me. He stayed pretty quiet about how much he was scouted me and I guess what happens is scouts don’t like to show too much interest so they don’t give the appearance that they know too much. So he sort of laid in the weeds a little bit and I went to the Cape Cod League in Massachussetts and then they called me and the Tigers drafted me [in the 10th round of the 1972 amateur draft] and Lajoie put me on a plane and I signed that evening.

DAC: Did you grow up a Tigers fan?
LR: My Dad never watched much baseball, we didn’t have a TV until I was in tenth grade. I used to listen to the Tigers on a transistor radio a little bit and I knew all the players and collected the bubble gum cards and all that. But I was more of a Yankee fan, but liked the Tiger players, if that makes sense.

DAC: You were a stellar athlete coming out of Portage Northern High School and were recruited by many schools in many sports. Why did you choose baseball?
LR: I played football, basketball, baseball, and I ran track during baseball season. I got offered a lot of of scholarships. In high school I was All-State several times and All-American twice in football, twice in basketball, and got recruited by everybody. I ended up going to the University of Michigan on a football scholarship and also played basketball and baseball for three years. Moby Benedict was my baseball coach at U of M and he was a stickler for details and fundamentals and an extremely good baseball coach. I had a couple guys in Kalamazoo who watched out for me when I was a younger player, they had played some pro ball back in the old days, but Moby sort of finished me off for pro baseball.

DAC: Who were some of the guys you had as teammates in the Detroit organization when you were in the minor leagues?
LR: I came up with Ron LeFlore. I signed ahead of him but he caught up with me, and I was a center fielder but I moved to right because he was better suited for it with his speed. I played with Bruce Kimm, who caught Mark “The Bird’ Fidrych and also Tom Veryzer, who was a heck of a defensive shortstop and unheralded. John Wockenfuss was my teammate and he was a good-hitting catcher with that funny batting stance, I came up with Vern Ruhle, who was from Michigan and went to Olivet College. I had a lot of good memories of playing with those guys.

DAC: When you came up with the Tigers in 1974 you were seen as the replacement for Al Kaline in right field. What was it like stepping in for a Detroit legend?
LR: That was a lot of pressure, trying to replace him. My locker was right next to him, he was a heck of a player, real quiet and real down to earth, but he could really play baseball. Looking back, I should have taken the lead and asked him more questions, but when you’re young and a rookie you’re supposed to keep your mouth shut, and be seen and not heard. Rookies aren’t supposed to bother the veterans and pester them, and since Al was quiet — he was always accessible — but he never threw himself on you and told you what you needed to do. I just tiptoed through the mine field as a first-year player in the big leagues.

DAC: Who were some of your teammates in Detroit when you played with them in 1974-75?
LR: Catcher Bill Freehan was a former Michigan guy like myself. There was John Hiller, who was coming off his heart attack and was rehabbing in Lakeland when I started in Lakeland my first year in spring training in ’72. Mickey Lolich could really pitch but by the time I came up he had a bad knee. Aurelio Rodriguez was our third baseman, Mickey Stanley was in center fielder and he was a good defensive outfielder. Ron Cash was taking over for Norm Cash at first base and a few things went wrong and the team got old pretty sudden and the young guys like me got more playing time in ’74 and especially in ’75.

DAC: What was it like to play at Tiger Stadium?
LR: Tiger Stadium was in a tough area of town but the neat thing was when you walked into the ballpark the grass was so green, and the stadium was green at that time, which was unique. There was a lot of nostalgia there because of the great players that had played there: Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, George Kell, Kaline. They had all played there. When I played there were a lot of old ballparks like that, but today we don’t have that.

DAC: You hit your first home run at an old ballpark. Do you remember the circumstances of that?
LR: It was a 3-1 slider from Rick Wise at Fenway Park [in Boston]. NOTE: Roberts hit the homer in the seventh inning in the second game of a doubleheader in which the Tigers lost 12-2. It was part of a hot streak for the 24-year old in the early stages of ’75, as he was hitting .383 with 11 RBIs in 17 games through May 16th. 

DAC: You had a big secret that you kept your entire playing career. What was it?
LR: I have real bad eyes, I stabbed my eye with a knife when I was a kid. I was goofing around with my jackknife. I kept it hidden because I wanted to be a ballplayer. I had bad focusing point in my right eye and bad depth perception in my left eye, but I kept it secret so I wouldn’t be released. I never told anyone that I had such bad vision in my right eye, not a manager, not a teammate, not anyone. When we had our physicals in spring training there would be a long line, just like a cattle call. I would sneak up and read the line they wanted us to read and memorize it. Then when I got up there I’d just recite what I’d memorized. No one ever figured it out. I would always force myself to really concentrate on reading the ball and tracking the ball.

DAC: With that bad eye and the tough depth perception, who were some of the pitchers you struggled against?
LR: I did alright against hard throwers, but it was some of the soft tossers that gave me trouble. I was alright against Nolan [Ryan], he only struck me out a few times, but guys with bending breaking balls could give me trouble.

NOTE: Sure enough, a check of the records shows that Roberts hit three home runs and batted .315 against hard-throwing Detroit native Frank Tanana and had great success against fastballers Fergie Jenkins and Dennis Eckersley. On the other hand, against Steve Stone, with his big curveball, Roberts was only 4-for-31. He also struggled against a few other slow throwers like Jim Kaat.

DAC: The Tigers dealt you after the 1975 season to the Houston Astros. How did you hear that you were traded?
LR: It was bittersweet. I grew up in Michigan, went to the University of Michigan, got drafted by the Tigers, and I wanted to play for the Tigers. I never thought I’d ever get traded, but trades happen. I was in winter ball and it was during baseball’s winter meetings, and we were in Mayagüez (Puerto Rico) and somebody tells me in Spanish “You’ve just been traded to the Houston Astros.” I was in shock, I didn’t believe it. Houston was 1,200 miles away. I made some phone calls and found out it was true but I still couldn’t tell my wife for about four days because all my family was in Michigan, I was from Michigan, and I just couldn’t tell her. That was a shock.

DAC: From Tiger Stadium you went to “the eighth wonder of the world” in Houston: the Astrodome. What was it like playing there?
LR: The ball didn’t carry at all. It was like playing baseball in a big, huge, covered building. You had to be careful or you’d lose the ball in the roof, the astroturf made it difficult because the astroturf back then was hard. It was strange not seeing the sun and playing baseball, I had to get used to it.

DAC: Did you enjoy playing on astroturf? You played on it at several of your stops in the big leagues.
LR: Well, that’s why I retired after only 11 years. I played two years on turf in Houston, three years on turf in Seattle, and two years at the end of my career on turf in Kansas City. Back then the turf wasn’t soft, it was just thin turf on concrete and it was tough on you. I played like a maniac anyway, I was diving and running, and it was tough on my knees, my back, and my ankles.

DAC: While you were a member of the Astros you were a teammate of J.R. Richard, what do you remember about him?
LR: Before I was even his teammate, I had faced J.R. in the minors and he had filthy stuff. He threw hard with the best slider I’ve ever seen, and he was right on top of you because he was 6’9. In my first spring training [with the Astros] I was in the hitting group with Cesar Cedeno, Bob Watson, and Cheo (Jose) Cruz, the three best hitters on the team. Well, when J.R. threw batting practice in spring training those other three wouldn’t face him because he was so dominating. He threw without a screen and he threw inside a bunch, and I had to take the whole BP because they just skipped it. J.R. threw free and easy, which made his stuff even more electric. When we played the Dodgers, I don’t know what it was about the Dodgers, but we could have played 20 innings and they weren’t going to score off him. He just ate the Dodgers up. NOTE: Sure enough, Roberts’ memory is correct: in ’76 Richards pitched 44 innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers and allowed only three earned runs.

DAC: You were traded again at the winter meetings in 1977, this time from Houston to Seattle. Were you glad to be going back to the American League?
LR: Any time you get trade it’s a sort of crossroads. I played winter ball in Venezuela [in 1977] and hit .395 and we won the league under Felipe Alou, who was a heck of a manager. I hit good and got back on track and when I went to Seattle [in 1978] I didn’t play much early in the season because the right fielder had a contract and they played him instead [this was probably John Hale]. Then on May 15th he went down and I got in there and went on to finish sixth in the league in hitting and have my best year [Roberts hit .301 with 22 homers and 92 RBI]. I was named Pacific Northwest Athlete of the Year. I guess my eyesight must have been pretty good that year.

DAC: At the 1980 winter meetings you were part of a 10-player trade that landed you in Texas. With the Rangers in 1981 you played for Don Zimmer, what was that strike-shortened season like?
LR: We had a talented team and we had a good record, we were about 1/2 game out of first when the strike stopped the season and then we played well the second half. But because of the strike we didn’t get that chance to win our division. We had Al Oliver, Fergie Jenkins, Jon Matlack, Mickey Rivers, Jim Sundberg, Buddy Bell, we were a good ballclub.

They were just starting with the sabermetrics and the right fielder [Johnny Grubb] had played for Zimmer in San Diego, so I had to spit time. When we had the 51-game strike I was hitting like .330 and I had won the right field job outright, but when we came back [after the strike] I had lost my job. I was back on the bench as a role player or a platoon player, which surprised the heck out of me. Then the sabermetric guys told [Zimmer] that I should hit against righties instead of lefties, and he got mad at the sabermetric people and buried me. That was a tough pill to swallow. I played like my hair was on fire and I was real competitive, so it surprised me that he wouldn’t give me more playing time.

DAC: You finished your career with two seasons in Kansas City, how did your big league career wind down? 
LR: My goal was to play 10 years. You set goals for yourself, and mine was to play ten, and I played in the big leagues for eleven years. My body was sore from playing on astroturf and I was ready to walk away. I retired with a year left on my contract.

DAC: But baseball wasn’t done with you. You ended up taking a job and even playing again, right? 
LR: I got talked into managing by Bill Lajoie, who had scouted and signed me. I spent a few years doing that for the Detroit organization [Roberts managed the Tigers’ Triple-A teams in Nashville in 1986 and Toledo in 1987]. Then the Senior Professional Baseball League came along and they twisted my arm to go play for about $7,000-8,000 a month and I did that for two years as a player/manager. I was in Winter Haven and we had a team made up of a lot of former Red Sox. Then that league folded and I took a job as a hitting coach.

DAC: You’ve been in the game for more than 40 years. You could have been a football player or played another sport, how did you end up with a life in baseball?
LR: Well, football and basketball were my favorite sports to play. But I went to the University of Michigan and as a football player I was a split end, but they never pass. I didn’t go out for football in my freshman and sophomore years, which is my only regret for my sports career. But baseball was what ended up getting me noticed and that ended up with me being drafted by Detroit. I’ve been in the game as a player, manager, player/manager, hitting coach, or hitting coordinator pretty much since 1972.

DAC: Do you still have any connections to Michigan?
LR: My son attended the University of Michigan and was All-Big 10, team captain, so he went there. I’ll still attend an occasional football game, still keep track of them.

DAC: What do you enjoy most about being a hitting coach?
LR: What I enjoy most is watching young hitters get better. Watching them pick up things, understand things, work hard at things. I enjoy watching them go through the ups and downs of slumps and getting better. I like that smile on their face when they put up good numbers. For example earlier this year Preston Tucker was leading the minor leagues in home runs and was called up to the big leagues. Jon Singleton, our first baseman is a heck of a talent and he’s leading the minors in home runs and ribbies so that’s really rewarding. Domingo Santana had a good year last year and is having another good year. Carlos Correa is basically the #1 prospect in baseball and he’s having a pretty good year. Those are your rewards. They don’t pay you enough to do this, but the rewards are the satisfaction of seeing them get better.

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Leon Roberts hit .267 with 78 home runs and 328 RBIs in 901 major league games over 11 seasons from 1974 to 1984. He played for the Detroit Tigers (1974-75), Houston Astros (1976-77), Seattle Mariners (1978-80), Texas Rangers (1981-81), Toronto Blue Jays (1982), and Kansas City Royals (1983-1984). He was a 6’3, muscular 200-pound right-handed batting outfielder. The Vicksburg native was traded four times, once for Cecil Fielder (from Toronto to Kansas City). He’s 64 years old and still enjoys putting on the uniform, currently serving as hitting coach for Houston’s Triple-A team in Fresno.

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