There were long, dark stretches in his recovery, months upon months when Roberts wondered if he'd ever get back to a normal life, let alone one that included playing professional baseball. And yet as the 34-year-old sat with a backward Orioles cap, cracking jokes with the media -- and later manager Buck Showalter -- and smiling ear-to-ear on Tuesday, it was hard to believe it had been more than a year since Roberts last played in a game for the Baltimore Orioles.
"I can remember taking my lead at first base in Boston like it was yesterday," Roberts said of that fateful game May 16, 2011, in which a headfirst slide into second base caused a concussion that left lingering -- and potentially career-threatening -- effects. "I can remember the feeling, I can remember the fear, I can remember everything. But there's times when it feels like [I've been gone] five years."
The wait ended shortly after 7 p.m. ET Tuesday night, as Roberts was activated from the 60-day disabled list and was back in the spot that once seemed absurd belonging to any Oriole but him: leadoff and second base.
"It's exciting," Showalter said of writing Roberts' name atop his lineup card. "I know it is for Robby. He's done everything possible that you can do. The one common response I've got from our people in [affiliated teams] Delmarva and Frederick and Bowie and Norfolk is how hard he was playing. He tested everything. I don't know what else we can do. He's basically been through the equivalent of Spring Training and there's only one road left to cross as far as we're concerned, and that's playing here."
Roberts, who ended his 20-game rehab assignment Sunday, echoed the sentiment. He has played full nine-inning games and gotten 42 at-bats, diving in the field and sliding, though not headfirst on the basepaths, where he will strongly consider going in feet-first.
Are there are any obstacles Roberts still needs to come to terms with?
"Let's hope getting hit in the head isn't one," he said, grinning . "I'd be happy to stay away from having to clear that hurdle, I guess, but other than that, there's not a whole lot of mental hurdles I have to clear.
"I think that the only thing left to do is get out and play in a Major League game. That's the only thing I haven't done. There's going to be a different amount of excitement and energy involved in that, which will be the very last thing I think I'll have to overcome."
The longest-tenured Oriole on the current roster, Roberts has played in 1,232 games, with a .281 career batting average, 84 home runs, 477 RBIs, 339 doubles and 274 stolen bases. And as prolific of a career as he's had to date, Roberts' return will be uncharted territory for one big reason: The Orioles are winning. Baltimore entered Wednesday's game a game out of first place in the American League East and eight games over .500, a far cry from the Junes of Roberts' past.
Asked if the team's play had helped spur his recovery, Roberts said he didn't know.
"I can't answer that question, because I don't know what it would feel like if we were 15 games out right now," he said. "I think I'd still be just as excited. I love to play the game of baseball. I've been here 11 years and I've lost as many games as anybody in the world, but I still love to play baseball. I don't think that changes anything for me."
With Roberts' return, Robert Andino, who had been filling in, will move to an infield/corner outfield utility role. Andino knew all along that he was starting only until Roberts' return, and was not in Tuesday's lineup.
"I'll always be looking for ways to get him involved in our team," Showalter said. "He's a contributor for us. We're always in need of someone who can do a lot of things. Robert, like all guys, can use a day here and there. It's only going to make him better.
I don't think we've seen the last of Robert Andino, I can tell you that. I've got a long memory of what he's done for us. He's established what he can do to contribute here."
Showalter said he doesn't have any exact plans for Roberts the first few days -- although using him at designated hitter is a possibility -- and it will largely depend on how Roberts feels.
"I found a good way with Brian is not asking him every day how he's feeling," Showalter said. "He and I have a little look at each other. I know he'll be very frank with me and that's the way I want him to be. Just because he might need a day here or there, we're not going to think, 'Woe is me. Here we go.'"
To make room on the roster for Roberts, Steve Tolleson was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk. Tolleson hit .237 in 12 games with two home runs and six RBIs, including a game-tying three-run homer in Sunday's win against Cliff Lee and the Phillies.