For Dave Roberts, being back on the baseball field is a blessing. It's where he knows he belongs.
Roberts is already hard at work in his new gig as San Diego Padres first-base coach less than a year after learning he had Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 37. He is now in the clear following his cancer scare and months of treatment, eager for a fresh challenge after a 10-year big league career that ended in 2008 with the San Francisco Giants.
Roberts has been showing up at Petco Park over the past month to instruct a few players on baserunning skills, well ahead of the start of spring training in two weeks. On Monday, he worked out Nick Hundley and Will Venable on a sunny Southern California day.
Through his ordeal, Roberts realized just how much support he has everywhere, most notably in all the cities where he played.
Promoted to his role as coach after working as a Padres special assistant in 2010, Roberts is perhaps best known for his stolen base in the 2004 AL playoffs that sparked the Red Sox to an elusive World Series championship.
"The thing that I probably gained the most is I never realized how many people -- aside from the fact of being appreciative and when people say 'You don't know what you have until it can potentially be taken from you' -- cared for me and loved me, from family to friends to fans," Roberts said Tuesday. "The e-mails, the cards, all the well wishes, were amazing. I never really had anyone constantly praying for me and my well being. To feel that wherever I went, from San Francisco to San Diego to Boston and to outside the country, was very humbling."
After bouncing back from the initial shock of his diagnosis -- he began feeling soreness in his neck before spring training last year, then discovered a lump that had begun to grow -- Roberts knew he would beat his cancer and make a full recovery. That's where he is today, though he will still undergo twice-yearly scans as a precaution.
He lost his energy and his hair, which has since grown back. He improved his diet, though his children -- 10-year-old son, Cole, and 6-year-old daughter, Emmerson -- didn't immediately warm up to the idea of eating more vegetables.
Roberts figures the Padres players, who saw him out on the field and at the ballpark during the entire process last spring and summer, can appreciate what he has endured over the past year to make a comeback.
As a player, he was determined to "never take a day for granted," always play hard and with a smile.
"After the initial diagnosis where you feel your world's upside down and the carpet is pulled from under you, when the dust settles from that, then you kind of realize, 'OK, what are we going to do to beat this?" Roberts said.
There's a definite parallel to life as an athlete, he said.
Roberts played for Cleveland, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston, San Diego and San Francisco. After retiring, the speedy outfielder spent 2009 broadcasting for the Red Sox.
Roberts was a career .266 hitter with 243 steals. His biggest highlight came in Game 4 of the 2004 AL Championship Series, when Boston was three outs from being swept by the New York Yankees.
With the Red Sox down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth at Fenway Park, Roberts pinch-ran after Kevin Millar drew a leadoff walk from Mariano Rivera. Roberts stole second and scored on Bill Mueller's single.
Boston won 6-4 in 12 innings, then became the first team in major league history to overcome a 3-0 deficit and win a postseason series. Roberts did not play as the Red Sox swept St. Louis for their first championship since 1918, but will always be beloved in Boston because of that one play.
"For me to make my way back to the field, obviously in a different capacity, I'm looking forward to going back to the cities I've played in -- LA, San Francisco, Boston, the Padres here -- and seeing those fans and showing my face that I'm OK and I really appreciate their support," Roberts said. "That's where I am. I'm a baseball player, and for me to get this opportunity is just great."