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Roberts won’t run from this

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 4, 2010

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The call came from Padres publicist Warren Miller at about 2 p.m.

“Dave just wanted me to call you to tell you he’s having a conference call this afternoon with a few writers. He’s got Hodgkin’s lymphoma,’’ Miller said.

My heart sank. Dave Roberts provided one of the greatest moments in Red Sox history, The Stolen Base from Heaven in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees, which saved the day and made the Sox’ first World Series championship in 86 years possible.

And he is one of the best human beings you’ll ever meet. I’ve met only a handful of players in 27 years covering baseball who are as thoughtful, smart, self-deprecating, humble, and inspiring. He was kind enough to write the foreword to my book, “100 Things Red Sox Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die’’ and I enjoyed working with him at NESN.

When he became special assistant for baseball projects with Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, it was the perfect job. He’s had a chance to work with young players and major leaguers, too, while being able to stay close to his home in Southern California. And there’s no doubt Roberts is on his way to a long, successful career.

Roberts has always been one of those guys who lifts up others.

I covered a few weeks of Barry Bonds’s quest for Hank Aaron’s home run record, and Roberts was the guy out front to answer questions for Bonds. Day in and day out, with Bonds ignoring the assembled national media, Roberts would speak on his behalf.

Roberts’s playing career, except for the one play that will live forever in Red Sox history, was pedestrian. He was a .266 career hitter, though he had 243 stolen bases in 10 seasons, some full-time, some part-time work with the Indians, Dodgers, Sox, Padres, and Giants. He could steal a base, slap a key hit, play good defense in the outfield.

Great teammate. When guys were down, Roberts had a way of putting his arm around them and showing them a positive way. He was a good influence on Manny Ramirez in Cleveland and Boston. So good of a guy that he requested — and received — a release from the Padres so he could be an everyday player with the Giants.

You couldn’t tell by his voice that the first two rounds of chemotherapy had begun to take their toll. Still strong and claiming he was feeling good, Roberts, who will turn 38 May 31, vowed to beat the disease. He felt a lump in his neck before spring training. As the spring progressed, he felt soreness and tenderness in the area.

“There have been some tough days for me going through chemo,’’ Roberts said. “But my spirits continue to be high and, if you know me, they will continue to be. I expect to be fully recovered.’’

Roberts said the cancer was detected early and “fortunately, the prognosis is very positive.’’

He has a long way to go. Hodgkin’s attacks the immune system and compromises the body’s ability to fight infection.

“It was early enough that everyone feels pretty good about it where I think I can make a full recovery,’’ he said. “It was a surprise to me. I felt like I was in good health. The more I read about it, I’m more in tune with it now.’’

And his first instinct was beating it.

“I’m doing good,’’ he said. “Once the initial shock wore off, I’m at the stage now of, ‘What can we do to beat this?’ My wife [Tricia] is incredible. She’s been a pillar of strength. I’m feeding off her energy as well.’’

Roberts will probably have to reduce his visits to Petco Park to work with players. The Padres, leading the NL West, have seemed to feed off Roberts’s energy. Roberts said his work helped him get through some tough moments.

“You have to deal with some of the side effects of chemo,’’ he said. “But it’s been good to come to the ballpark and work with players. That keeps me going and keeps me positive.’’

Red Sox manager Terry Francona, the man who inserted him as a pinch runner for Kevin Millar that glorious night, said he’s known about Roberts’s fight for a while. And he might have had the best line of all.

“I expect that Dave can outrun anything,’’ Francona said.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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